"That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
— T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Remember back when the question of the day was what the meaning of "is," is? That seems so long ago — A.D. 1998. Back then the president doing the explaining was The Hon. William J. Clinton, Esq. Testifying before a grand jury at one point, he explained that he wasn't lying, not at all, when he'd assured his top aides, the kind of loyal supporters who might actually have believed him, that, no, there was nothing going on between him and this Monica Lewinsky.
How could that not have been a lie? Bill Clinton's response, made under oath (if that means anything in his case): "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the — if he — if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement . . . . Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."
Got all that? We never did, either.
But it was an impressive response nevertheless.
Now the question is no longer the meaning of "is," but the meaning of "that." Now there's another linguistician in the White House, or at least another slick customer. And for weeks we've been assured this president didn't say what he said, not at all. It's just that his words have been quoted out of context, twisted around, distorted by selective quotation . . . .
Take your choice of the editing tricks his unprincipled critics have been using to make it seem the president said something he didn't, namely that American businessmen didn't build their companies. Never mind what the rest of us heard him say. He didn't. And who you gonna believe, the president of the United States or your own lyin' ears?
Here's what Mr. Obama actually said in a campaign appearance at Roanoke, Va., on Friday, July 13, 2012 — complete with surrounding context. Judge for yourself, as you should and would anyway:
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
If you thought our president was saying that if you've got a business, you didn't build that, then you heard wrong. All he was saying was that somebody else made that happen — that you, Mr. Businessman, or Ms. Businesswoman, owe your success not to your own hard work or talent, or just plain luck or God's help, but to somebody else — the rest of us, the Great Collective, and those roads and bridges government built. And that's what the president meant by "that."
But who in real life talks like that, referring to roads and bridges not as those but that? The president of the United States, apparently.
It's enough to make us miss plain English. And not for the first time. What ever happened to the plain meaning of words, to the way people — not politicians — talk? Remember the days when you didn't need an interpreter to understand what a president of the United States was saying? But that was ages ago, that is, long before this year's endless presidential campaign began.
Now the country has a president who has to keep explaining, or rather not explaining, what he said about American businessmen not creating their own businesses. That's his story and he's sticking to it, despite the plain meaning of words.
Another of the speech's more head-scratching moments was the president's highly debatable version of who created the Internet and how, exactly, government invented it so American companies could make money off it.
Yes, there was a forerunner of the Internet designed largely for military purposes called ARPAnet, and it originated with the government's Advanced Research Projects Agency, but it was developed by a private company, BBN Technologies, its hardware was designed by Honeywell, and AT&T set up the phone lines. And a number of think tanks and universities played supporting roles in that cast of thousands. If all the credits were rolled, there would be enough of them for a Hollywood blockbuster. All in all, Mr. President, it wasn't quite as simple as "Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."
Indeed, far from being designed for commercial purposes, ARPANet was declared off-limits for private use. As late as 1982, a handbook on computing put out by MIT warned students: "It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business. . . . Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend many people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet."
So much for government's having invented the Internet to help American businesses make money off it. Not that the private sector couldn't be just as blind to the Internet's potential. Xerox was so obsessed with making copiers in the 1970s, it couldn't be bothered with developing the Internet -- or inventing the personal computer, for that matter. All that would be left to Steve Jobs at Apple. Are we supposed to believe he didn't build that company, that somebody else did? That it was built by all those roads and bridges?
This president needs a fact-checker, or at least a good copy editor, hard as both are to come by.
A wise president, or just a wise man, having been caught in so gross a misstatement, would simply say he was sorry, or maybe "No Excuse," as soldiers are taught to say in the service after they screw up royally. Then the air would be cleared, and the whole mess put behind us. Confession is good not just for the soul, but for peace of mind. What would it cost, a little false pride? And it would be more than compensated for by a healthy measure of self-respect.
Instead, by trying to "explain" what he said, or didn't say, our president has only prolonged this controversy and his own verbal ordeal. And he's also entrenched the phrase, "You didn't build that," in American memories. Much like "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."