Dr. Rice’s Grammer Jammer

Focused on details, as always, I listened to Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s congressional testimony this morning with admiration. One sentence especially impressed me. In it, Dr. Rice used an astoundingly agile combination of conditional and subjunctive moods in the past tense and in the passive voice to deny any responsibility for security failures before the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Let others dissect the content of her remarks. I am convinced that they essential message is conveyed by the form of this brilliant fragment.

THE SETTING

The conversation here is between former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, and the commission’s star witness, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

THE CONTEXT

Roemer asks Rice if it was her job to press the FBI to respond to warnings of an impending terrorist attack.

THE QUOTE

If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something… I would have been expected to be asked to do it.

THE DOUBLE WHAMMER GRAMMER JAMMER

Let’s try to identify the subject of this sentence. Is it “I”, that is, Dr. Rice? Clearly it is Dr. Rice who “needed to do something.” But who is the person or persons who had “any reason to believe”? Is this also Dr. Rice?

If so, then the first part of the sentence means: “If there was any reason for me to believe I needed to do something…”

So far so good. But now we get to the second part of the sentence.

“…I would have been expected to be asked to do it.”

Expected by whom? Perhaps by the President, perhaps by her staff, perhaps by others at the White House, perhaps by the public, were we to every find out the details. But at the very least, by herself. So, in this minimal reading, the sentence becomes:

I would have expected somebody to ask me to do it.

Thus: “If there was any reason for me to believe I needed to do something, I would have expected somebody to ask me to do it.”

We have now purged the passive voice, but the conditional and subjunctive moods remain. (“would have expected,” etc.) I don’t think the meaning suffers if we get rid of the cloudy phrasing. Here goes:

If I needed to do something, somebody would have asked.

The passivity of the statement is no longer an artifact of awkward grammar, but an expression of Dr. Rice’s state of mind. She did not take action because she was not asked. This is exactly the passivity that Richard Clark complains of in his book.

The harmony of form and content is not easily achieved. I am struck by the way Dr. Rice’s real passivity fades out against the backdrop of her bureaucratic speech.

The full transcript here.

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