Punctuating POTUS

by Joshua H. Liberatore

When I explain to people that I earn my keep by editing the President’s speeches, a common reaction – quite understandably – is some version of, “So you guys fix his grammar?” Well, no, not exactly. And much as the inner English teacher weeps not to be able to correct howlers like “Drugs destroys lives,” uttered precisely one year ago today, our main task is to make oral remarks readable as printed text. Our intended audience is posterity. Our modest aim is proper context and accuracy, not polish, verbal grace, or even basic subject-verb agreement.That said, meeting the criterion of future readability quite frequently demands aggressive and creative deployment of punctuation. And in punctuating POTUS, one of the familiar challenges we editors face is dealing with POTUS’s tendency to mix reported speech with direct speech, often in discussing fairly abstract concepts. For example, if you or I were discussing aid to Africa and how best to administer its use, we might say something along these lines: “We have expressed our desire to help African nations help themselves, but we don’t want to be heavy-handed about it. We want to show them that we trust local leaders to implement the programs themselves.”

POTUS pronounced a similar idea to superpastor Rick Warren, just last week at the Saddleback Forum on Global Health, in recognition of World AIDS Day. What follows is the version given in the rough transcript provided by the White House press office:

And so setting the goals also had to change the way we did development aid. In other words, we said to people, we want to help you. But rather than being paternalistic about our help – which basically says, we know better than you on how to achieve our goals – we expect you to be a partner in achieving the goals. Which was an attitudinal change basically saying to African leaders, in this case, we trust you; we think you’ve got the capacity to be a good partner.

What to do with all those embedded clauses, all those vague pronouns? What to do about those theoretical concepts framed as dialogue? One needs to make it clear that POTUS is explaining a philosophy for the dissemination of aid, not vocalizing an internal conversation. After many assays and much grammarian’s handwringing, we arrived at the following version, which is by no means perfect:

And so setting the goals also had to change the way we did development aid. In other words, we said to people, “We want to help you.” But rather than being paternalistic about our help, which basically says, “We know better than you on how to achieve our goals.” We expect you to be a partner in achieving the goals. Which was an attitudinal change, basically saying to African leaders, in this case, “We trust you; we think you’ve got the capacity to be a good partner.” (December 1, 2008)

To achieve a modicum of clarity, we sacrificed adherence to complete sentence structure among other sacred elements of style. There were other options of course, as you will readily discern, but few if any seem markedly superior. Sometimes it’s not easy to decide where to break these abstract quotations, but neither can we let them linger indefinitely, edging the syntax into a morass of confusion and linguistic despair. When it comes to punctuating POTUS, it’s principally a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.

Given that POTUS likes to tell stories, and often uses a storytelling format to illustrate complex decisions or points of fundamental strategy, we encounter such difficulties more often than is healthy for our national security. Later in the Saddleback Forum, POTUS recycled one of his favorite stories, whose original dates back to a trip to Eastern Europe in November of 2002:

It’s a rainy day, there was a lit balcony, and I asked, why is that balcony lit? And it was because the tyrant Ceausescu had given his last speech in this balcony. Just as I stepped up to speak a full rainbow appears. It was a stunning moment. Remember it was a drizzly day, kind of dark. And I ad-libbed, “God is smiling on Bucharest,” because the rainbow ended exactly behind the balcony where the tyrant had given his last speech. And you can look at that any way you want to look at it. One way to look at it is, hey, pal, you’ve got a lot of influence – and you can use your influence for human liberty, for decency, and for justice all times, all places.

Would that God were smiling on the semi-colon or the unsplit infinitive! But POTUS is right: there are indeed many ways of looking at it, but we still can’t figure out what he meant in that terminal sentence. In that same spirit of humility, I end this week’s issue with two raw, interactive examples, works in progress, directly from today’s editorial desk. Outside advice is most welcome.

Secondly, what has changed with Iran is universal recognition about the dangers of Iran having a – the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. And therefore, one of the objectives of my administration is to create an international coalition all saying the same thing, which is, you have defied the IAEA; therefore, you cannot be trusted to say that you’re only enriching for civilian nuclear power; therefore, stop your process, verify they stopped their enrichment process, otherwise there will continue to be international sanctions. (December 7, 2008)

And so I’m confident history will say, oh, Bush could have done it better here, or, Bush could have done it better there. But I think from the strategic point of view, I’m confident that the idea of moving liberty in the region, a two-state solution to help the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the liberation of Iraq, and the follow-up with – to help the Iraqis realize their sovereignty – a strong push-back against Iran – I believe when people objectively analyze this administration, they’ll say, well, I see now what he was trying to do. (December 7, 2008)

We who toil to document that very history share your hope, POTUS, but in the meantime, we remain dutifully puzzled.

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