24 March 2011


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 25 March 2011

                                                "Better the feet slip than the tongue." George Herbert (1593-1633)

Parapraxes--'slips of the tongue.' They're believed to leak from the subconscious mind.

No doubt tongue-brain entanglements have been occurring since man began to speak, maybe even grunt, but they're familiarly known as "Freudian Slips"--thank you Sigmund (Freud); the Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis.

The classic 'for example' is the gent who approaches a travel booth tended by a "healthy" young woman--whose "condition" momentarily distracts him--and when asked how she could help him he replies, 'Two pickets to Tittsburgh, please.' Simply, tongue and brain got jumbled. Dr. Freud would have surmised the gent's subconscious betrayed what was on his mind, at least for a moment.

Anyway, psychoanalytic theory, which also gave us the id, ego, and superego, encompasses more than just simple parapraxes. Human fallibles of mishearing, misreading, misplacing (or losing) items or forgetting (momentarily and even longer) are phenomena of interest to the psychoanalysist.

No one is immune to parapraxes. Some are nothing more than stumbling through tongue (or mind) twisting words typically combining syllables from two words in the same thought; nothing more (as illustrated above). Others mere problems of syntax. And some slips, so say the head doctors, have subliminal meaning. That is, something's bubbling just below the threshold of consciousness (also as illustrated above).

But for most the hiccups are innocent and rarely matter. There's usually only momentary embarrassment and laughter, correction, and then carry on with life. No farm, no howl.

But for politicians, ever in the public eye, it's not quite so simple. A slip may be innocent, but presented by others so as not to appear so. When not a carefully orchestrated statement or press conference, inevitably folks loitering about with cell phones, or some sort of recording device, are waiting to snag an impromptu  soundbite (or pic), then transmit, globally, in seconds. Facts and context, though interesting, rarely matter less they dampen what appears at first glance to be a juicy, exploitable moment.

Sometimes the politician's misspeak can be innocent. Sometimes not so much innocent as revealing when mouth engages before brain affording others a sneak peek beyond the surface. Ergo Freud's ideas as to the subconscious.

So, in short, 'slips of the tongue' can be harmless, embarrassing, hilarious, discrediting, and sometimes--believe it or not--discrediting and even disastrous.

Vice President Biden (admit it, you were thinking about him), suffering the malady of many a pol--vocal chords faster than cerebral synapses, reigns as current king of the oral jumble and goof. Here's one of his beauties while on the campaign trail shortly after being tapped to be Mr. Obama's running mate: "A man I'm proud to call my friend. A man who will be the next President of the United States--Barack America!"  He's only gotten "better." And, oh, by the way, what a case study he'd have been for Mr. Freud.

But Mr. Biden's not alone. Oh no. He keeps good company--there's a long and distinguished list of ranking politician misspeaks. Playing no favorites, here's a few...

­President Ronald Reagan, who sometimes drifted from his meticulously scripted remarks, mishmashed "Facts are stubborn things." attributed to John Adams, and declared, "Facts are stupid things." Mr. Biden would concur. That they are--and especially bothersome when trying to make a counterpoint. Maybe Mr. Reagan (and Mr. Biden) had Mark Twain's, "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." in mind.

President Richard Nixon, advising a friend, "You don't know how to lie. If you can't lie, you'll never go anywhere." A subliminal thought leaking out or innocent blooper? One word: Watergate. You make the call.

Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley during a dustup between protestors and police, "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder." Something the public felt was actually the case, and their mayor's slip confirmed.

"There's a lot of uncertainty that's not clear in my mind." No, that dandy does not belong to a president or vice president but a Texan, Gib Lewis, while State House Speaker trying to explain his problems.

Vice President Dan Quayle gave the media plenty to cackle about when it came to public gaffs. His most famous being the spelling of "potato" while visiting an elementary school and listening to a child spell the word--who spelled it correctly but was prodded by the vice president to add an "e." Innocent mistake? Maybe another one a little more revealing, "This president is going to lead us out of this recovery." Something he blurted during a reelection campaign stop. He and President Bush (41) lost, but not just because of Mr. Quayle's flub.

And speaking of 41, when running for the presidency in 1988 reflected on his eight years serving as President Reagan's vice: "For seven and a half years I've worked alongside President Reagan. We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex . . . uh . . . setbacks." We'll just leave that one alone.

And we'll end these examples with son following in dad's footsteps. President Bush (43) addressing the good folks of Louisiana: "The people in Louisiana must know that all across our country there's a lot of prayer--prayer for those whose lives have been turned upside down. And I'm one of them."  And that is one to pause and think about.

Anyway, miscues are inevitable--especially when drifting from script. They happen to the best.

But to "misspeak"--in print--in what is a meticulously crafted, reviewed, edited to ad-nauseam official statement--press release--from the President of the United States is difficult to understand. How is it an obvious parapraxis slips through, and slips through multiple 'filters'?

Next under came directly from The White House (.gov website)...

"The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

March 11, 2011

Statement By The President On The Earthquake In Japan And The Resulting Tsunami Warning Throughout The Pacific

"Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the people of Japan, particularly those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake and tsunamis. The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial. The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy. We will continue to closely monitor tsunamis around Japan and the Pacific going forward and we are asking all our citizens in the affected region to listen to their state and local officials as I have instructed FEMA to be ready to assist Hawaii and the rest of the US states and territories that could be affected.""



Scriveners of the president's words couldn't come up with anything more appropriate?

An innocent, oblivious error?

A parapraxis?

A poor attempt at analogy? Intended to suggest Japan may have an unsteady relationship with Mother Nature but not with the United States? If so, it didn't rock, it tremored and flopped.

Perhaps there was a Melville's Bartleby-type about the White House who, crafter of the draft, when told to change it replied, "I would prefer not to." And didn't.

But, if so, who edited "Bartleby's" draft?

And who reviewed and approved the editor's proof of "Bartleby's" draft?

Maybe the vice president approved it? May-be.

It'd be nice to have a peek at the Staffing/Routing Sheet.

How did the obvious slip through? Perhaps it was too obvious. Intentional is difficult to understand much less believe.

It's a good thing America morphed it's own brand of English vice sticking to the Queen's. Can you image a White House press release to the people of Libya...

"Michelle and I send our deepest concerns to the people of Libya struggling for freedom, particularly those who have lost loved ones in the violence. The United States stands bloody ready to help the rebels and Libyan people in this time of great trial. Blah, blah, blah."

A point of order, rebels are now "revolutionaries." And yet their intent toward the United States is uncertain.

You say, "potato," and I say, "patahto" (no "e" on either). Regardless, ol' "Bartleby" sneaks in another subtle zinger.

As a friend posted on Facebook, "Perhaps he [the President] meant to say, 'The friendship and alliance between our two nations will never melt down... Who could make this stuff up? Golf anyone?'"

Golf? Sure, Steve, right after the NCAA Tournament brackets work is done. What do you think, Reggie (Love), Duke or Carolina? Oh, wait, you played for Duke!

Thank god the release did not end with, "The Stars and Stripes--forever may she wave."

As aired, the press release was four sentences and 124 words. Two sentences and 113 unnecessary words--clutter. Clutter ripe for saying something embarrassing--something stupid--and that's exactly what happened.

President Franklin Roosevelt advised when public speaking--"Be brief; be sincere; be seated." An axiom certainly applicable to public writing.

With that wisdom, perhaps a better White House press release...

"Japan, America aches and prays for you. America will help you."

One nation speaking to--comforting--another nation; friend to friend.

Two sentences. Eleven words.

Brief. Sincere. Seated.


Roosevelt would have approved. As would have Thoreau. Freud, too.

With "Bartleby" left wondering why he had a job.

And Japan not left more dumbfounded.

Post Script

It wasn't "Bartleby's" fault, but he'll get blamed.

Maybe The White House, amidst all else being offered, has extended a diplomatic apology to Japan. And made a pen change, one would hope, to the press release. 

Is this parapraxis--this burp--a big deal in the grand scheme of things impacting America and our White House? Well, guidance offered by a unit commander long ago comes to mind, "Take care of the small things and the big things will take care of themselves."  

Author's Endnotes

1. Yes, it was intentional: No harm, no foul.

2. "Simplify. Simplify." Henry David Thoreau

No comments: