1. The speaker can stand by his or her words, and take the consequences.
2. The speaker can regret the words, express remorse, apologize, and ask forgiveness.
3. The speaker can accept the criticism and agree that he or she meant what he said, but state that, upon listening to the criticism, state that he or she no longer feels that way, and would not say the same thing today.
4. The speaker can try to say that the original statement wasn’t intended to mean what anyone hearing the words would naturally think they meant, making a plausible claim that the original statement was mis-worded.
5. The speaker can deny that he or she said the words, even, in some cases, though it was on tape.
6. The speaker can say that the words were taken “out of context,” as they sometimes are, as in Shirley Sherrod’s case, when subsequent comments at the same event changed the meaning of the quote, but were edited out.
7. The speaker can say he was joking, as Senator John Kerry tried to do after he suggested that if you don’t study hard and end up ignorant, you’ll be in the military fighting with all the other dummies, or as Professor Charles Ogletree has claimed regarding his statement that a video of President Obama hugging a radical law school professor when he was a student was hidden during the 2008 campaign.
8.The speaker can say that the statement is “no longer operative”, as Newt Gingrich did after a televised interview earlier this year.
9. The speaker can claim that for some reason, his or her statement didn’t express what he or she really believed, but the opposite. This is the Pazuzu excuse, essentially stating that one was possessed like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist,” as when Helen Thomas went into an angry, blatantly anti-Jewish rant on camera and later tried to claim that she has never felt that way.
10. The speaker can later issue expanded remarks designed to show that the earlier ones were short-hand, poorly-crafted, and misunderstood. This is essentially a retraction, and whether anyone believes that the speaker meant to say what originally was criticized is typically decided by confirmation bias—if you trust the speaker, you believe him; if you don’t, you don’t. This is what President Obama did following his comments about the Supreme Court’s possible rejection of Obamacare. Partisans and admirers are so eager to accept such re-mixes that they often go to ridiculous lengths. A Washington Post fact-checker, Josh Hicks, was so accommodating that in doing his fact-check of that statement, he actually wrote this:
“We took the liberty of re-phrasing the president’s initial remarks to get at his overarching message. We removed the word ‘unprecedented,’ since Obama walked that back, and we inserted the word ‘economic’ before “law,” since the president added that distinction in his follow-up. We kept the word ‘extraordinary’ and the part about judicial activism, since Obama never backed away from any of that.”
This isn’t fact-checking, it’s Orwellian re-writing of history. Obama is supposed to be articulate and brilliant; he was speaking painfully slowly, choosing carefully among all the brilliant ideas swarming in his head, and carefully chose “unprecedented.” I, and many others, think he chose that word with a purpose, and the purpose was to deceive the majority of the public that is ignorant about the Supreme Court. But he was bombarded with criticism, even from the ABA, and the next day tried a different tactic. He still said “unprecedented” in his original statement, and should not be able to erase that word from the statement after the fact. Which of the above explanations was the President trying? If the man knows, as a brilliant lawyer who taught Constitutional Law should, that overturning major legislation is not unprecedented, then why did he say otherwise? Did he forget? Was it Pazuzu? Or was he trying to deceive? Members of the public who heard the first statement may not have heard the second. Fisk’s solution, to just pretend that he said something else—especially something else that Fisk himself expressed questions about ( “It’s clear that Obama’s “unprecedented” comment was dead wrong, because the Supreme Court’s very purpose is to review laws that are passed by the nation’s democratically elected Congress — regardless of how popular or well-intentioned those laws may be. This concept of judicial review was established in 1803 with Marbury v. Madison, a case that Obama should have been familiar with as a former law school lecturer and previous president of Harvard Law Review. Still, we don’t know whether the president’s factual error was a mere slip-up or a purposeful attempt to mislead…”, Fisk writes, before saying that he’s going to pretend Obama never said it at all) is biased media boosterism as its worst.
11. The speaker can try to say that the original statement wasn’t intended to mean what anyone hearing the words would naturally think they meant, making an implausible claim that the original statement was misworded or incomplete.
This last, which was just spectacularly illustrated by Trayvon Martin’s mother, is the most common tactic of late. When Mitt Romney’s top aid, Eric Fehrnstrom, infamously suggested that the candidate’s positions during the nomination battle would be wiped clean “like an Etch-A-Sketch” once the general election campaign was underway, he obviously meant that Romney would say one thing to conservative Republicans and something more moderate to the electorate generally. When the firestorm of criticism arrived, Fehrnstrom and the Romney camp swore that what he was trying to say was something else, as Ann Romney most recently put it to Piers Morgan. “Obviously, he was talking about how we’re going to change focus,” she said, “and we’re going to change, you know, what we’re going to do in the organizational sense of changing. Not Mitt changing positions.”
Well, no, Ann, that wasn’t obvious, and as I look at the video again, it seems obvious that this was not what he meant. at all. What Romney should have done was to issue a statement that Fehrnstrom misrepresented him, and fire him. Instead, he chose to treat the public like idiots, because it works.
Today, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, did the same thing regarding her remarks Thursday to The Associated Press referring to the episode that ended Martin’s life as an accident, after she had stood by at rallies condemning George Zimmerman as a race-profiling, vigilante who killed her child in cold blood. (My post about this is here.) She told reporters today that her statement wasn’t referring to the shooting, but the encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman. That was the accident.
Do you have some nice swamp land to sell us too, Sabrina? In the comments to the earlier post, a reader writes that this “clarification” “helps enormously as to exactly what she thinks happened, when, and why.” To the contrary, her clarification is an insult to the intelligence of everyone in listening range who isn’t bound and determined to accept whatever the grieving parents say no matter how improbable. The supposed clarification makes no sense at all, because if that’s all she means, it isn’t worth saying. The encounter was accidental? Who ever suggested otherwise? There was nothing wrong with the encounter, which, as far as we know, wasn’t planned by George and Trayvon’s appointment secretaries. The issue is the sequence of events that led to and includes the shooting of her son. The special prosecutor just charged Zimmerman with intentionally shooting her son; the woman made a statement after Zimmerman was charged with intentionally shooting of her son’ and Fulton said “I believe it was an accident, I believe that it just got out of control and he couldn’t turn the clock back.” Translation: “I believe that Zimmerman didn’t mean to kill my son, but that the encounter just got out of control, escalated, and it was too late to avoid violence.” That’s a reasonable statement, or would be if it hadn’t come from a woman who didn’t say a word when the furor that she and her husband had launched resulted in a $10,000 bounty being placed on Zimmerman’s head and members of Congress talking about cold-blooded murder and a hate crime. Stating that it is really her opinion that only the encounter—but not the part of the encounter that the case is about– was an accident panders to the New Black Panthers and the angry mob, but it is also contrary to her words, the timing of them, and the context—also reality. Zimmerman intentionally called 911. He intentionally followed Trayvon. He intentionally put himself in a position to have a potential confrontation. If any part of the encounter could have been called an accident, it is the shooting and only the shooting. But Trayvon’s mother wants us to believe she meant to suggest exactly the opposite., and apparently thinks we will.
Maybe she should try Pazuzu instead.