October 9, 1998
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our conversations about issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. We've heard from Stephen Carter, Orlando Patterson, and William F. Buckley. Terence Smith has tonight's conversation.
TERENCE SMITH: With me is Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is "The Argument Culture." Welcome. Deborah Tannen, let me ask you this: There is an argument going on in this town now about whether this whole matter is or is not just about sex, but isn't it also about language and the parsing of words, arguments over what the meaning of "is" is, that sort of thing?
DEBORAH TANNEN, Author, "The Argument Culture:" Yes. But also, I think, it's pitting the common sense understanding of words against the legal understanding of words. It's very easy for us to laugh at the president's parsing words in that way with the present tense, so it wasn't the past tense. But the question is: How did he get in this position where he had already been questioned under oath, had made a statement in one context and then is put in a very different context, talking to the American people and they expect a very different kind of language, and they're judging it in a very different way. So I think it's that being caught between the legal language and everyday language. All this talk about perjury, obstruction of justice, the average person's feeling is that these are very heavy words that require heavy deeds to bear their weight. They don't feel that the words should be applied to - it's the difference between a situation in which the cover-up, itself, is the crime, versus covering up a crime. If the law doesn't make these distinctions, the average person does, and what concerns me is that it ends up not giving people more respect for the law but actually it's a very dangerous situation where they have contempt for the law if they see the law can't make a simple distinction that they can so easily make.
TERENCE SMITH: For example, on this broadcast on January 21, the president looked Jim Lehrer in the eye and said, "There is no sexual relationship," taking refuge in the present tense, in effect.
DEBORAH TANNEN: That's right. But, of course, if you look at it from the point of view of that context, it seems quite absurd. But if you look at it from the how we got to that context, the history of his having been hounded, you would have to say, by people who were trying to catch him in some sort of an error, and he had already given this deposition in which he had been questioned and of course, we can talk about this-he didn't know that the questioning was going to be about Monica Lewinsky, so he wasn't prepared for that. He thought he was being questioned about sexual harassment issues relating to the Paula Jones case.
TERENCE SMITH: In his testimony.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Right. But having those prosecutors on his tail, you might say, he then wasn't free to answer in a way that he might otherwise answer.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, there's an old saying that there are two kinds of truth - one, the kind you can prove in court; and the second is the kind of truth that any fool can see. I wonder if the public isn't exercising the second standard.
DEBORAH TANNEN: They are. And I have to say what is most troubling to me in the current situation, it's a very dangerous situation when there is this tremendous gap between what the average person thinks and what I call the three "p's" - the pundits, the politicians, and the press. We need to have faith in the great institutions of our democracy -- journalists, politicians, and the law -- and what we see now is that people are losing respect for all those three institutions, because there is this tremendous gap. The average person is saying this is not impeachable; it's not that significant; we don't approve of it, but let's attend to the really important business of running the country. And yet, they are not able to get their voices heard.
You know, it's - in an odd way it reminds me not so much of Watergate but of Vietnam. I hear people saying things like I'm ashamed to be an American; I feel like leaving the country -- right after the videotape was played. The first 10 calls that I heard on C-Span - having watched the whole four hours - were saying, we've got to stop this. And they were -interestingly, it was bipartisan. The people are bipartisan. Republicans, as well as Democrats, saying - in fact, one Republican said, "If my party succeeds in bringing down someone over this" - and very interesting what he said - he said, "I'll never vote again." He didn't say I won't vote Republican; he said, "I'll never vote again." It's the cynicism about our process that is to me the most dangerous aspect of what we're seeing.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think that the public has arrived at some sort of distinction between lying about sex and lying about a crime?
DEBORAH TANNEN: We know that the majority - not everybody but a very large majority say that if you lie about a sexual relationship, it's not the same; we should not be concerned on the same level as we would if a public figure had lied about misconduct in public office. So, yes, they made that distinction, and to see all the people in power not making the distinction is what is leading to this disillusionment, this frustration.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the famous phrases in this whole matter is when the president wagged his finger at the camera and said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." I wonder whether that caught your ear and what - how women, especially, but perhaps other people respond to that phrase, "that woman."
DEBORAH TANNEN: It did. It did. And it has been replayed many times. I think when you normally hear "that woman," you think that there's an attitude of contempt and that would be a very negative interpretation. I believe, again, he was caught in this situation where our society, being what it is, at that point in order to protect himself from being indicted for having said something different under oath, he thought that he had to say that. I think we really need to pull back and ask the larger question. I'm surprised it isn't being asked more. How did we get to a situation where the President of the United States was asked under oath about his sex life? This, to me, is really the major question. And I believe it's a whole series of things. We tend to put it as Clinton Vs. Starr, the gun fight at OK Corral. And that limits our way of understanding it. It's - my word for it is the argument culture. It is the whole tenor of our culture now in the law, in politics, and in the press, where attack is valued; compromise is not valued, and people are out to destroy their opponents any way they can. And this is what led to this.
TERENCE SMITH: And one of the techniques they're using - and it's resulted in a new coinage here - sexual McCarthyism is a phrase we hear now.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes. I have also heard people saying that it feels like a coup de tat. They feel that their electoral will is being undermined by a faction, and this is very dangerous. And the "sexual McCarthyism" is very dangerous, very interesting to see how sexual harassment now is being taken seriously. We have laws to protect against it. But these laws can, in turn, be abused, and by the argument culture we are abusing the legal system. So you have a sexual harassment case with Paula Jones. They use the discovery process - the right to depose witnesses - as an excuse to dig up women who had consensual relationships with the president. Well, that's not sexual harassment. It was not relevant to the case, but it was abused. I have actually heard cases - an academic case - where there were two men - rivals - and one went - one by one - to every woman in that department trying to find out if maybe she had been sexually harassed by his rival. In fact, they hadn't been. He gave that up.
TERENCE SMITH: Using it as a weapon.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Men can use this as a weapon in their battles against each other.
TERENCE SMITH: The whole public discussion of sometimes graphic description of sex and sexual acts in all of this, has it - it's remarkable (a); (b) has it changed public mores and what's acceptable language?
DEBORAH TANNEN: It is changing public and private mores. People are now having private conversations about personal sexual topics they would not otherwise have. One person used this phrase that he felt that we have all been raped because our children are being exposed to this explicit sexual discussion, and by the way, it would be just as offensive if we were hearing in detail about what married couples did in private. We are simply bringing into the public sphere what in the past was private, and this too is very, very troubling.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, some 65 percent of the public apparently in polls indicates that they do not want to see the president impeached, and yet, Congress is forging ahead right down that road with the Republican majority. I wonder if they're not listening. Is there a disconnect here?
DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes. And it's the disconnect that troubles me. We know that we have had more and more cynicism. People feel that the government is more interested in partisan bickering than they are in solving the problems that face them, and this is simply being reinforced. People are saying they don't want the government spending; they were saying they didn't want all that money spent on investigating the president's private life; but they can't seem to be able to stop it. And that's very troubling.
TERENCE SMITH: Deborah Tannen, thank you very much.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Next week, we'll continue the series with authors Calvin Trillin and Shelby Steele.