False Starts and Freudian Slips

by Joshua H. Liberatore

One of the distinctive challenges of editing POTUS for the historical record involves determining which verbal ticks must be preserved and which forgiven as negligible oral stumbles. The principle category comprises what we call “false starts.” In speaking, we are all practitioners of occasional self-adjustments, in which we begin a sentence using one construction ( “I think that if we cook . . .” ), then abruptly shift to another ( “. . . no, I’d rather go out for dinner tonight.” ). In fact, we do it so often that we scarcely notice, and for the most part, basic communication goes unhampered. If you were to record yourself in casual conversation, however, you might be surprised at just how often false starts interrupt and fragment otherwise intelligent discourse.The utterances of POTUS, on the other hand – no matter how casual or impromptu – are nearly always recorded by a faithful White House stenographer. And as his oral remarks are converted into published texts, false starts become a thorny question of editorial judgment, and sometimes just plain mercy.

Simple false starts, the result of ordinary verbal crutches, can be easily forgiven, and thus, omitted. For example, a simple repetition or stutter – “Yesterday the Working Group on Financial Markets, which is – which is obviously associated with the White House, announced an initiative to create these kinds of clearing houses” – can be safely excised from the edited version without seriously marring the authenticity of the public record (November 15, 2008).

In other cases, however, even simple shifts in verb choice need to be documented for fidelity’s sake. At this year’s APEC summit in Lima, Peru, on November 22:

So I want to talk today about how to do that and I want to focus – and I think we ought to focus our efforts on three great forces for economic growth: free markets, free trade, and free people.

So, how do we choose what to keep and what to forgive? The general rule of thumb is to measure substantive difference in word choices. Following that rule, we discover that POTUS’s false starts often reveal very interesting subtexts, providing a conduit into the inner workings of his psyche. A few examples will suffice.

On a government website promoting volunteer opportunities:

And you can search my hometown. They tell me that if you get on Crawford, Texas, you’ll find that the local Humane Society leaks – seeks volunteer pet groomers, which makes Barney really nervous. (September 8, 2008)

On responsible borrowing:

Some people bought homes to simply speculate. But there’s also a lot of sensible homeowners who can make mends – ends meet with just a little bit of help, and that’s what we want. (October 7, 2008)

Conversely, on biting off more than you can chew and seeking government assistance:

And so a lot of people say, “Who can I talk to to help me refinance my home? Where do I go?” And so the HOPE NOW allowance – Alliance is an opportunity to say to folks, here’s how you can find the ways to renegotiate your paper – renegotiate your note. And it’s working. (October 7, 2008)

And my personal favorite, in his formal remarks in Bangkok this August 7:

I was disappointed that the Doha round of trade talks has stalled, and the United States will continue to engage China, India, and other nations to help reach a successful collusion – conclusion.

If we were inclined to psychoanalyze POTUS, using just these recent examples as fodder, we might reach some very intriguing conclusions about his interior demons.

Above all, as his literary executors, we must resist the temptation to make the text pretty at the expense of accuracy. The fact is, sometimes we want to help POTUS arrive at cogent, fluent speech, but just can’t. At this year’s September 11th memorial dedication at the Pentagon, solemnity demanded a precision that just barely eluded POTUS:

The years that followed have seen justice delivered to evil men and battles fought in distant lands. But each day on this year – each year on this day, our thoughts return to this place. Here, we remember those who died. And here, on this solemn anniversary, we dedicate a memorial that will enshrine their memory for all time.

And in the same APEC address cited above, we winced to curate this monstrosity:

The nations in this region must also continuing to work down – must continue to work down – continue working to break down trade barriers at the global level. We have an immediate opportunity to do so through the Doha Round at the WTO. One of the enduring lessons of the Great Depression is that global protectionism is a path to global economic ruin.

Poor POTUS! But we must not allow pity to muddle our editorial standards, we his humble documentarians of false starts, Freudian slips, and everything in between.

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