Magazine article The New Yorker

Mr. and Ms. Spoken

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mr. and Ms. Spoken

Article excerpt

When the footage surfaced showing that Hillary Clinton, contrary to what she had been claiming in campaign speeches, had not been obliged to duck and run from sniper fire during her visit to Bosnia in 1996 but, rather, had listened smilingly as a little girl recited a poem about peace, the former First Lady, now the junior senator from New York and a candidate for President, explained, "I misspoke." When the man whom Clinton still hopes to run against in November charged that Iranian agents are "taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back"--even though Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda have no use for each other--his campaign had an identical explanation: "John McCain misspoke."

Along with its various derivatives, "misspeak" has become one of the signature verbal workhorses of this interminable political season, right up there with "narrative," "Day One," and "hope." It carries the suggestion that, while the politician's perfectly functioning brain has dispatched the correct signals, the mouth has somehow received and transmitted them in altered form. "Misspeak" is a powerful word, a magical word. It is a word that is apparently thought capable, in its contemporary political usage, of isolating a palpable, possibly toxic untruth, sealing it up in an airtight bag, and disposing of it harmlessly.

Such a feat of modern hygiene is impressive in a word of such ancient origins. The Oxford English Dictionary finds it in Chaucer ("I me repente / If I mis spak"), but the hoary examples involve meanings that are either obsolete (to calumniate) or irrelevant to the present case (to mispronounce or speak incorrectly, a specialty of George W. "Misunderestimated" Bush). The last item in Oxford's half-column entry, however, gets us where Senators Clinton and McCain want us to go:

3.b. refl. To fail to convey the meaning one intends by one's words.

This use of "misspeak" is of American origin. Oxford's first example ("I believe he misspoke himself") is drawn from, aptly, the Congressional Record, 1894; its second ("The President misspoke himself") is from Richard Nixon's iconic press secretary, Ron Zeigler, in 1973, annus mirabilis of the Classical period of American misspeaking.

It is certainly true that Clinton and McCain failed to convey their intended meanings, which were, in the broadest sense, "I have put myself in harm's way for my country" and "I'm a majorly knowledgeable expert on the Middle East," respectively. But even considering their statements in a narrower, non-meta sense, you have to wonder. It is a fact, now established by videotape evidence and eyewitness testimony, that there was no sniper fire--no unusual danger of any kind--near that Bosnian tarmac. So what was Clinton thinking when, not once but several times, she said that there was? Was she lying, as many of her critics maintain? That seems improbable. More likely, she just misremembered. Her Bosnian jaunt took her into a still not completely stable area that had lately been a war zone. The military plane carrying her descended at a steep angle. For the landing, she was summoned to the armored cockpit, just in case. She was surrounded by nervous, gun-toting soldiers. She was having a radically new experience; no doubt she was nervous herself. Couldn't she have felt under fire, with mundane tricks of memory doing the rest?

Clinton's misspeak, or whatever it was, had no policy implications, but it fit nicely into a "narrative" left over from the scandals, real and (mostly) fake, of the Clinton Administration: "travelgate," the Rose Law Firm billing records, the "secret" health-care task force, William Safire's "congenital liar" sideswipe. …

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