The Passive Voice is the Tell: Mike Huckabee is a gutless sophist dept.

Update: A day late, but still:  Huckabee takes responsibility — and defends his decision to commute Maurice Clemmons’ sentence to make him eligible for parole.  His defense is coherent, morally consistent, and — incidentally — one which I find persuasive.  (That TomLevensonSealOfApproval™  is not worth very much:  the question of whether or not this was a sound decision at the time turns on more finely grained detail than Huckabee’s statement provides.  But within the context of this statement, Huckabee’s reasoning makes sense, morally and practically).

I stand by my rhetorical scorn for the first queasy remarks Huckabee’s campaign released in his name, as detailed below.  But credit where credit is due:  Huckabee confronted the issue directly, accepted executive responsibility, and presented a strong defense of his judgment.


I was just going over some student writing this morning when I came across a passage in Mike Huckabee’s attempt to dodge his own Willie Horton moment in the tragedy of the murder of four police officers in the state of Washington.

On question of commuting the suspect’s prison sentence, not a seraph or an angel of the Lord, but that righteous Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee wrote:

He was recommended for and received a commutation of his original sentence from 1990…

Aha!  I said.  I know this game.

Just before I read that line, I had been hitting the red comment button a lot on one particular, quite promising student story, in which the writer had not completely shaken the MIT-inculcated rhythms of professional scientific communication.  In a section on the development of what a certain class of drugs could offer patients suffering from a particular mental illness here that writer defaulted again and again to the passive: “it was believed,” or “it was found,” or “it is known…” .

I pointed out to my student that writers use this kind of rhetorical gambit when they want to assert  authority without responsibility.  No actual person “believed” that a given drug would or wouldn’t work, but by FSM it is known — fer shure — that it does (or doesn’t).

Such writing is a standard trope in formal scientific communication, which makes the claim that whatever human process lies behind any result, the finding must speak for itself.  And in that context, such a rhetorical claim has value — and costs.  Certainly, MIT undergraduates get taught to see outcomes of scientific inquiry in this manner, and it takes some effort — a lot — to remember how to express the active, individual, present commitments needed to drive the work they do and mostly love.

But when it comes to “values-for-thee-but-not-for-me” Huckabee, there is no excuse.  It’s all about the duck-and-weave.

The suspect, Maurice Clemons, then serving a 95 year sentence of aggravated robbery, “was” recommended for mercy and that mercy, commutation of his sentence was received.  No one in particular seems to have had anything to do with this, at least in Mike Huckabee’s universe, (though not in that inhabited by Arkansas law enforcement at the time).

Huckabee screwed up.  Why he did, and whether he did it alone or with help are yet to be determined.  There is a lot in Clemons’ history to suggest that the former Arkansas governor was not alone in allowing this terribly violent man to slip through the cracks.  I do not for a minute wish to suggest that Huckabee acted in the expectation that tragedy would result from his decision.

But if you want to test the character of a person, see how they react in the wake of consequential failure.  Do they step up, own their error, explain their reasoning, and express their remorse.

Or do you find that according to them, their homework was eaten by some dog.

That is:   one crucial qualification for a job in which you have the lives of others daily in your hands is the character with which you face the consequences of choosing wrong.   In this moment of tragedy — or rather in his reaction to it — we have come the measure of Mike  Huckabee.

Image:  Jeff Crites for the U.S. Army, “I didn’t do it,” 2009.

Explore posts in the same categories: Huckabee, Republican knavery

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4 Comments on “The Passive Voice is the Tell: Mike Huckabee is a gutless sophist dept.”

  1. Jim Bales Says:

    Tom writes:
    [I]f you want to test the character of a person, see how they react in the wake of consequential failure. Do they step up, own their error, explain their reasoning, and express their remorse?

    I first voted in a Presidential election in 1980, and I voted for Jimmy Carter because of how he stepped up and unequivocally took responsibility for the failed attempt to rescue the hostages held in Iran (in which eight American servicemen died). Carter went on national TV and said:
    It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation. It was my decision to cancel it when problems developed in the placement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. The responsibility is fully my own.

    Mr. Reagan was tested when the US Embassy in Beirut was bombed for the second time in five months (63 were killed in April ’83 attack, and 22 more were killed in the Sept. ’83 attack).

    When asked why security had not been increased in the intervening months, Reagan replied:
    Anyone that’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.

    BTW, you might check the details on Clemons arrest record. As I read the Seattle Times article you link to, “When Clemmons received the 60-year sentence, he was already serving 48 years on five felony convictions and facing up to 95 more years on charges of robbery, theft of property and possessing a handgun on school property.” I take that to mean that he was yet to stand trial for the 95 years, rather than that he was serving the 95-year-sentamce.


  2. AJ Hill Says:

    I took the measure of Mr. Huckabee while listening to him address the National Rifle Association during the Republican presidential primary campaign. It would be hard to compose a more disgraceful example of political pandering, which reached its nadir with Huckabee describing how blessed he had felt while introducing his young children to the joys of killing.

    Thanks to Jim for reminding us what a standup guy Jimmy Carter was. The right misses no opportunity to vilify this intelligent, intensely moral ex-President, who should be remembered chiefly for his prescient energy policies. Reagan’s victory was a dual tragedy for the country, depriving us of Carter’s leadership in this critical area at a very critical time (as we see now, to our sorrow!)

  3. […] use: When the speaker wants to avoid acknowledging responsibility for his or her actions (”Mistakes were made“).   […]

  4. Ian Preston Says:

    The recommendation may be rendered in the passive but the receipt of commutation is expressed by Huckabee in the active voice (“He … received a commutation of his original sentence from 1990“); it is only transferred to the passive voice in your summary (“ … commutation of his sentence was received“). Assignment of responsibility is avoided here because the identity of the decision maker is unspecified. Agreed, character is revealed by whether one’s role is owned up to but not by which grammatical voice is chosen for that to be done in. The passive voice is being unjustly slighted here.

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