Man Without Qualities

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Doubletimed Gobbledegook

Almost inevitably, Mr. Clinton’s entry into Robert Reich’s campaign for governor of Massachusetts has resulted in a dispute reminiscent of the controversy that earlier rocked the Miss France competition.

Specifically, it appears that Mr. Reich told the Boston Herald that Bill Clinton had encouraged him to get into the Massachusetts governor's race.

A couple of days ago, Mr. Clinton said this about Mr. Reich’s claim: ”I like [Reich] fine, but I didn't like the implication that somehow I encouraged him into the race when you already had one guy in the race that had supported my policies, and at critical points [Reich] didn't. I wouldn't have done that.”

Did Mr. Clinton encourage Reich? Josh Marshall says that in the comment above “Clinton said pretty clearly that this wasn't true.”

Dissection undeniably has its icky side in both politics and biology. But sometimes even the best hi-tech simulation just leaves out the most salient part of the experience and only the real thing will do. William Jefferson Clinton seems to present more than his share of such examples, perhaps because some of his readers and listeners are so oddly and persistently determined to find “clear meaning” in sentences constructed in a style deliberately adapted to avoid exactly that. When Robert Reich is added to the mix, the result is a virtual perpetual motion machine of hilarious intellectual burlesque. Let’s go to the tape.

Mr. Clinton said “I wouldn't have done that.”

Mr. Clinton must know whether he did or did not encourage Mr. Reich. But Mr. Clinton’s sentence is unnecessarily complex – as if it has other intended meanings. Mr. Clinton could have said “I didn’t encourage Mr. Reich’s run for governor” or even, with somewhat less clarity, “I didn’t do that.” Mr. Clinton chose not to use clear or direct phrasing.

One normally says, “I wouldn't have done” a particular act in exactly the case where one actually did do that act, but wouldn’t have done it under normal circumstances. For example, if a husband buys something expensive without consulting his wife, he might explain to her by saying “I wouldn’t have done that, except that I got a low price and someone else would have bought it if I’d taken the time to call you.”

And what is the pronoun “that” supposed to refer to in Mr. Clinton’s sentence? According to the standard rules of English grammar, this pronoun has no referent in Mr. Clinton's sentence. Just that aspect of Mr. Clinton’s sentence is enough to make any meaning given to it far less than “pretty clear” – but Mr. Marshall is undeterred.

It gets worse. In Mr. Clinton’s sentence, is “that” supposed to be short for “encourage Mr. Reich to run for this office”? Well, if so, why does that phrase or one like it not appear anywhere in what he says? The closest thing he does say is, “I didn't like the implication that somehow I encouraged [Reich] into the race when you already had one guy in the race that had supported my policies.” Even setting aside the fact that Reich’s name has to be inserted into the sentence in brackets because Mr. Clinton apparently used another pronoun here (maybe “him”?), this statement isn’t the same as saying that he didn’t encourage Reich. In fact, Mr. Clinton’s doesn’t even clearly say that Mr. Reich’s opponent (the referenced “one guy”) supported Mr. Clinton’s policies. Mr. Clinton’s phrase just says that he doesn’t like the “implication” that he encouraged Mr. Reich (or “him”) to run “when you already had one guy in the race that had supported my policies.” So, even if the “one guy” actually hadn’t supported Mr. Clinton’s policies, but whoever it was who was drawing the referenced “implication” thought that the “one guy” had supported Mr. Clinton’s policies, then Mr. Clinton apparently would still not have liked the “implication.” And who could blame him?

Mr. Clinton is hyper-articulate and a Yale Law School graduate. He constructed his comments with full notice. There is a reason Clinton refers to his own past actions in the subjunctive – almost as a hypothetical. He uses this kind of grammar and language exactly because he does not want to leave a clear meaning. His history proves beyond reasonable doubt that when he uses vague or multi-valenced language he usually means to be evasive – and he is not employing such language to capture a complex or nuanced meaning or for the sake of brevity (God knows, he is seldom brief). That is his choice and his right. But what is less understandable is why anyone bothers to listen to him, why any intelligent person such as Mr. Marshall ever thinks Mr. Clinton’s sentences have a “pretty clear” meaning, and – a mere corollary of the preceding – why anyone thinks they agree with him or has his endorsement.

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