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MLA Full: "A Brief History of the Non-Denial Denial." YouTube, uploaded by vlogbrothers, 17 May 2016,
MLA Inline: (vlogbrothers, 2016)
APA Full: vlogbrothers. (2016, May 17). A Brief History of the Non-Denial Denial [Video]. YouTube.
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Chicago Full: vlogbrothers, "A Brief History of the Non-Denial Denial.", May 17, 2016, YouTube, 03:34,
In which John discusses the storied tradition of non denial denials in American politics. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton to John Edwards to Chris Christie, politicians have been denying things without actually denying them for decades. As the Presidential election approaches in the United States, we're already seeing a lot of the same language that has long been used to evade and obscure, so I thought I'd make a video about it.

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday. So dishonesty has a storied place in American politics, but for the past several decades maybe our most prominent form of deception has been the so-called "non-denial denial".

I first heard that term while reading All the President's Men about the Watergate cover-up that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation back in 1974. Like Nixon's press secretary Ronald Ziegler responded to reports about the scandal saying "Stories are being run based on hearsay, innuendo, guilt by association." He also said "No one in the White House at any time directed acts of sabotage." The first statement is just a criticism of the press, the second one is very carefully worded to be technically true like "no one in" that is, physically inside the White House, "directed" that is, directly oversaw "acts of sabotage". President Nixon had still totally committed obstruction of justice, of course, but there was no direction of acts of sabotage from inside the White House!

In the decades since, the non-denial denial has become almost beautiful in its linguistic sophistication. Like after the National Inquirer published reports of 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards having a child outside of his marriage, he said "That's tabloid trash. They're full of lies". But of course saying that tabloids are full of lies is not the same thing as saying that the tabloid is lying about that particular story. He later said that his wife was beautiful and sexy, which again is not the same thing as saying he wasn't having an affair. And then finally, he said "The story's just false." False is a word you hear a lot in non-denial denials. It's useful because it's vague, like maybe the story's false because you didn't actually have a child with your mistress, maybe the story is false because the story claimed you met your mistress at noon, when in fact, it was 12:06.

Maybe the most famous example of a non-denial denial came from Bill Clinton, who said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky". Now that seemed at first a total unambiguous denial, but it turned out Bill Clinton was using "sexual relations" to refer to a specific sexual act and not to, you know, like, a sexual relationship.

This strategy of narrowing the definition of guilt so much that you are no longer guilty is quite a popular one. Like when CIA director John Brennan was asked if the CIA was spying on Senate aides investigating the CIA's interrogation techniques, he responded, "As far as the allegation of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth." Because there was no password theft, it didn't meet Brennan's definition of "hacking", but, you know, other than that, it was completely true, so it really, it could have been further from the truth, because it was just, it was just that one step away from total truth.

There are many other kinds of non-denial denials. Both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, for instance, used "There's no evidence of that" and "I can't recall". You also often hear people not quite answer the question, like during the Bridgegate investigation, New Jersey governor Chris Christie said, "I am not a bully" in response to a question that was not about whether he was a bully. And then there's the ancient tactic of criticizing the press, like allegations by the press might be called defamatory or libelous or slanderous or my personal favorite, outrageous. But of course lots of things that are outrageous also happen to be true. And words like defamatory and libelous are like false, they're vague, they don't refute specific accusations.

I bring this up, Hank, because I think it's important to pay attention to the language of the people who are or wish to be our leaders, especially in an election season. As voters, we need to be asking "When you tweet that something is false or a lie, what exactly is false or inaccurate about it? When you call someone a liar, to what lies are you referring? And when you issue a denial, what precisely are you denying, and are you in fact denying it?"

Language exists to facilitate communication, to make my thoughts transparent to you and yours transparent to me. But we have to remember language is a tool that can also be used to render things opaque. Hank, I hope you're having fun on tour, I will see you on Friday.