Analyzing Discourse in the First Bush-Kerry Debate
(or, Why George Bush is Incredibly Articulate…for real)
James S. Bielo
On September 30th, 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry met at the University of Miami for the first of three presidential debates1. PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer moderated as Bush and Kerry answered questions about foreign policy and homeland security for 90 minutes. Both candidates consented to a 32-page agreement of rules and procedures for the debate2. In his opening remarks, Lehrer listed a few of these, as well as the expectation for those in attendance:
“For each question there can only be a two-minute response, a 90-second rebuttal and, at my discretion, a discussion extension of one minute.”
“Candidates may not direct a question to each other.”
“There will be two-minute closing statements, but no opening statements.”
“There is an audience here in the hall, but they will remain absolutely silent for the next 90 minutes.”
The highly scripted, highly regimented nature of this “debate” invited deserved criticism from the media and the general public3. Is it really a debate if the participants are not allowed to address each other directly? Does this format facilitate an educated electorate, or an attempt to preserve candidates’ self-images? The debate was, indeed, infuriating at times (for some, I imagine, the entire time). Yet, I warmed the seat in front of my television for the full 90 minutes, as did millions of others.
The morning following the debate I was in the mail/coffee room at the anthropology department of Michigan State University. I was filling up my first cup of the day when David Dwyer came in to heat up water for his own, flavored brand. David was a member of my dissertation committee, and a mentor of mine in social and linguistic theory. We also shared a common interest in political discourse – as polemic, rhetoric, ideology, and hegemony. Our conversation that morning proceeded directly to our thoughts about the Bush-Kerry debate. We talked for several minutes, and he eventually suggested we spend some time reading a transcript of the debate. I eagerly agreed.
The consensus in broadcast and alternative medias following the debate was that Kerry scored an impressive victory4. Yet, just over a month later, George W. Bush was re-elected to the U.S. Presidency. Following the election, I received an email from David with an attachment – a transcript of the first debate. He wanted to pursue his suggestion; in part, to glean some insight into the apparent dissonance between debate victory and election loss. We began meeting weekly – at the library, his office, and a local pub – to exchange observations and possibilities for analysis. This paper chronicles our attempts to apply theoretical frameworks in discourse analysis to the Bush-Kerry debate. After several (relatively) unsuccessful analyses we found one framework particularly insightful, both for the nature of this speech event and for the possibility that George Bush is incredibly articulate…for real.
Narrative Structure, Intertextuality, and Semantics
After our initial readings of the transcript, Bush and Kerry’s responses began to resemble narrative units. With each reading, the arrangement of their respective answers appeared increasingly similar. We decided to employ William Labov’s research on narrative structure to observe the logic of arguments and the organization of talking points.
Labov (1972) argued that spoken narratives have a beginning, middle, and end. The typical narrative structure includes six components: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, and coda. The abstract introduces the story by way of summarization. The orientation provides the necessary background information. The complicating action provides the general problem or situation being dealt with. The evaluation surmises the general point of the narrative, and the reason for its telling. The resolution explains what ultimately happened with the complication action. And, the coda signifies the end of the narrative. This is a progressive model, wherein the speaker moves through the components as stages5.
Analysts have used this framework to better understand, news stories (Bell, 1991), narratives of religious conversion (Stromberg, 1993), and expressions of identity through storytelling (Lefkowitz, 2004). The application is rarely an exact replication of Labov’s components, but an attempt to identify an organizing structure that guides how particular genres unfold. In this wise, Dwyer and I were interested in what narrative structure was present in the debate responses of Bush and Kerry.
The first step in this process was to code the individual statements that comprise a particular response. Ultimately, we identified six types of statements: assertions, supporting statements, facts, positive evaluations, negative evaluations, and codas. The following examples from Kerry’s response to the first question demonstrate each type:
Assertion: “I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world and we are leading strong alliances.”
Support (for the above assertion): “I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security.”
Fact: “We’re now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq
and 90 percent of the costs.”
Positive Evaluation: “I have a better plan for
homeland security [than the president].”
Negative Evaluation: “This president has left
[alliances] in shatters across the globe.”
Coda: “[We can do a better job in] all of these, and
We sampled the transcript to come up with this list, working inductively with the first four questions. Few responses contained all six, but every response was comprised of at least two of these statement types. Several questions could now be posed in regard to narrative structure. Are there patterns of organization within responses? Do certain statement types typically occur together, or separately? Do Bush or Kerry make particularly frequent use of, or avoid, certain types?
We quantified the coded statements by response and speaker, and then derived several possibilities for how the statements might be organized. We arrived at two conclusions. 1) Bush and Kerry made relatively equal use of the various statement types. 2) Bush and Kerry organized their answers in very similar ways, with a narrative structure of assertion -> supporting evidence (via facts and/or evaluations) -> coda to provide a neat conclusion. The second find is mildly interesting, but quite unremarkable. This is an expected organizational structure and reveals little about the larger discursive style of the debate. And, more important, it suggests nothing about why Kerry or Bush “won” the debate. In short, narrative structure was not a very productive framework in this case.
Not to be deterred, we returned to the transcript to consider other analytical possibilities. Over the past two decades, linguistic anthropologists have become increasingly interested in the theoretical insights from the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bahktin (1934). Namely, the concept of meaning as “dialogical” has been used to counter structuralist presuppositions about signification processes. A dialogical approach suggests that utterance meaning is inherently historical and predictive, riddled with the baggage of previous and expected uses. Julia Kristeva (1986) pursued this approach in her analysis of literary texts, identifying how a single text is the result of, carries the imprint of, and incorporates multiple texts - what she termed “intertextuality.”
Discourse analysts identify multiple forms of intertextual practice that social actors use in strategic, culturally significant ways. One form in particular has yielded insights about the dialogical quality of spoken discourse. “Reported speech” refers to the practice of blending another person’s speech into your own speech. This can be done “directly,” where the change in author is obvious, or “indirectly,” where the change is more subtle (Volosinov, 1929). Deborah Tannen observed this phenomenon in everyday interactions and argued that ‘reported speech’ is more like “constructed dialogue, that is, primarily the creation of the speaker rather than the quoted party” (1989: 99). As constructed dialogue, the reporting speech provides some meta-commentary on the reported speech (e.g., its veracity or authority). The goal is not so much to report another’s speech accurately or faithfully, but to use their speech in order to make a statement about one’s self or the person whose speech is being reported.
For the Bush-Kerry debate, the initial question was simple: how does each participant use the intertextual strategy of reported speech? In our readings of the transcript, both candidates clearly invoked other speakers’ words on numerous occasions. Our analysis would question what, if any, pattern or significance there was to the use of this strategy.
Bush and Kerry each reported speech in 31 instances. Kerry quoted a wider range of speakers, including: Bush prior to and during the debate, “the Bush administration,” Jim Baker, General Scowcroft, “war families,” “young returnees,” General Shinsheki, “the terrorism czar,” Prime Minister Allawi, John F. Kennedy, Charles DeGaulle, Colin Powell, and George Will. On the other hand, Bush reported the speech of Kerry prior to and during the debate, “the Kerry campaign,” Ambassador Negroponte, “the troops,” Missy Johnson, and Colin Powell.
By far, the most commonly reported speech by Bush and Kerry was from Bush and Kerry. Kerry, on 15 occasions, and Bush, on 21, invoked the speech of their opponent in an effort to criticize their policy and/or their character. They each had their favorites. For Bush, he used various iterations of “The troops are not going to follow somebody who says, ‘This is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.’” Kerry did the same with, “The president said he was going to build a true coalition, exhaust the remedies of the U.N., and go to war as a lost resort.” But, the use of a political opponents speech to argue against them is hardly a revealing finding. The question lingered, do Bush and Kerry use reported speech strategically, in ways that resonate with larger rhetorical goals?
The short answer to this question is yes. For example, Kerry framed the reported speech of Bush as a “promise” on three occasions, as in the following:
“The president, in fact, promised [the armed forces]. He went to Cincinnati and he gave a speech in which he said, ‘We will plan carefully. We will proceed cautiously. We will not make war inevitable. We will go with our allies.’”
A “promise” is an archetypal case of what J.L. Austin (1962) famously called a “speech act;” a class of utterance that does not just describe, but actually constitutes reality. In her own analysis of political discourse, Jane Hill (2000) suggests that promises are a significant linguistic category because they are equated with moral character. Fulfilling a promise reveals integrity, while breaking a promise reveals ethical negligence. Thus, to frame someone’s speech as an unfulfilled promise is to make an assertion about who they are as a person. In this sense, Kerry’s reported speech of Bush is carried out strategically because he delivers a critical remark without explicitly stating it.
Bush also used reported speech in creative ways. Consider his representation of Kerry in the following:
“I decided the right action was in Iraq. My opponent calls it ‘a mistake.’ It wasn't a mistake. He said I ‘misled on Iraq.’ I don't think he was misleading when he called Iraq ‘a grave threat’ in the fall of 2002. I don't think he was misleading when he said that ‘it was right to disarm Iraq’ in the spring of 2003. I don't think he misled you when he said that, you know, ‘anyone who doubted whether the world was better off without Saddam Hussein in power didn't have the judgment to be president.’”
In this example, Bush pieces together a series of quotations from Kerry. The final case of reported speech – “anyone who doubted…” – is the most strategic. Bush uses the deictic referent “anyone” to position Kerry as the subject of his own critique against people who “[don’t] have the judgment to be president.” This resonated with Bush’s campaign accusations that Kerry sends “mixed messages” and is a “flip-flopper.” Much like the use of “promise,” this calls character into question, not just politics.
Our analysis of intertextuality was somewhat more productive than the application of narrative structure. Still, as an analytical framework, reported speech is lacking in this case. Observations about promises and such are interesting, but only in sporadic fashion, providing no coherent statement about the debate discourse or the reasons for “victory” and “loss.” Encouraged, but tiring, Dwyer and I moved on to a third theoretical framework.
We hoped to identify the use of key words by Bush and Kerry. In particular, we were interested in words that resonated with and indexed larger discourses that the two candidates wanted to engage. Jay Lemke (1995) refers to this relationship between lexical items and societal discourses as “textual semantics.” He uses the following example to demonstrate:
“The freedom fighters are being kept in a concentration camp. [versus] The terrorists are being held in a prison” (ibid: 37).
These two statements can describe the same empirical situation, but they constitute the meaning of that situation very differently. “Freedom fighters” and “terrorists,” “concentration camp” and “prison,” each resonate with different audiences. This can be a very effective strategy for communicating with and appealing to particular segments of the voting public, and for subtly and efficiently conveying ideologies6. Our goal was to see if any such cases were operative in the Bush-Kerry debate.
We identified only a few instances. For example, Kerry used “outsourcing” to resonate with his critique of Bush’s economic policies, as in the following:
“Unfortunately, [Osama Bin Laden] escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn't use American forces, the best trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That's wrong.”
Bush found several ways to connect with the conservative discourse of American patriotism, invoking “terrorist,” “freedom,” “America,” and the like throughout the debate. However, he did so with relatively the same frequency as Kerry. Evoking nationalistic sentiments was the business of both candidates, not something that distinguished Bush’s talk.
David and I were particularly surprised at the ineffectiveness of this framework given Bush’s tendency to employ discursive strategies meaningful for American Evangelicals. Bush’s self-identification as a “born-again Christian” has been widely publicized, as has the political clout of the ‘Christian Right.’ Yet, there was comparatively little in Bush’s discourse that spoke directly to this audience. In fact, the only evidence of this was in the following four examples:
(1) “My concerns about the senator is that, in the course of this campaign, I've been listening very carefully to what he says, and he changes positions on the war in Iraq. He changes positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts, is right in Iraq.
(2) “Jim Lehrer: New question, Mr. President. Two minutes. Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?
George Bush: You know, every life is precious. Every life matters.
(3) “My hope is that the African Union moves rapidly to help save lives. And fortunately the rainy season will be ending shortly, which will make it easier to get aid there and help the long-suffering people there.
(4) “We've done a lot of hard work together over the last three and a half years. We've been challenged, and we've risen to those challenges. We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it's a valley of peace.”
The use of “heart” in the first example to signify “what you believe in your core” is an established part of born-again discourse. “Heart” appears throughout various translations of the Old and New Testaments as the true location of one’s moral compass, understanding of God, and conviction of sin7. Bush’s response to Lehrer that “every life is precious” echoes the anti-abortion movement, a pivotal issue among Evangelicals since the late 1970s (Harding, 2000). In the third example, “long-suffering” is a frequently used term in the King James translation of the Bible. And, the final example is an undeniable integration of Old Testament imagery.
The textual semantics Bush employs in these examples clearly demonstrate his blending of political and religious discourses. What is unremarkable is the paucity with which he does this. In a text with over 7,000 words and responses to 19 questions, Bush makes only four attempts to connect with a significant electoral base. As a contrast, in his inaugural address following re-election, a speech of just over 2,000 words, Bush makes 21 Biblical and Evangelical references.
Our frustration mounted. The framework of textual semantics offered as little as narrative structure and intertextuality for understanding the debate and election outcomes. We had spent months reading, re-reading, analyzing, coding, and recording observations with only scattered insights to show. But, our analytical fortunes would change in early March of 2005.
Don’t Think of an Elephant!
I was browsing through a local bookstore one afternoon when a new release caught my attention – Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate (2004). The book’s title attracted me less than the author, George Lakoff. I was familiar with Lakoff’s reputation as a linguist. His most prominent work analyzed the relationship between language, thought, and metaphor (1980). This was a text that Dwyer and I had talked about at length.
Don’t think of an elephant! is Lakoff’s attempt to articulate the fundamental differences between “conservative” and “progressive” value systems, and to show how these are expressed through language. Lakoff makes four basic arguments in the book. 1) Americans do not vote in their best self-interest. They vote their identity and their values. 2) Conservative and progressive values can be encapsulated by two overarching metaphors that can be communicated via a series of individual metaphors serving as interpretive frames. 3) Historically, conservatives have been much more effective at integrating these metaphorical devices into their political discourse. Moreover, conservative frames are so prevalent that progressives also adopt them, thereby accomplishing the rhetorical work of conservatives. 4) The future of progressive political success greatly depends on avoiding conservative frames and employing their own.
I recommended the book to Dwyer, more as a matter of general interest than anything else. He suggested we each buy a copy, read it, and see if it could assist in our ongoing analytical difficulties with the debate text. One week later we met, both full of new ideas and eager to return to the text.
Our primary interest was turning Lakoff’s polemical statement into a framework for understanding the debate discourse. We both could recall Lakoff’s conservative and progressive metaphors in the words of Bush and Kerry, but a systematic analysis required us to develop a concrete set of descriptive codes.
Lakoff articulates two dominant metaphors for conceptualizing “the nation:” one for conservatives, the Strict Father model, and one for progressives, the Nurturant Parent model. His description of each begins as follows:
Strict Father: “The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good. What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can: protect the family in the dangerous world; support the family in the difficult world; and, teach his children right from wrong…” (2004: 7).
Nurturant Parent: “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others…” (2004: 12).
In short, conservatives and progressives adhere to their respective metaphors for conceptualizing the role of the government in the lives of individuals and collectivities, and in the global society.
Based on Lakoff’s extended presentation of these two metaphors, Dwyer and I developed two coding schemes, each consisting of 13 propositions:
SF1: The world is dangerous because of the existence of evil.
SF2: The world is competitive, and there will always be winners and losers.
SF3: There is an absolute right and wrong.
SF4: Children are born bad and must be made good.
SF5: Protection is a value.
SF6: Children must be made to be obedient.
SF7: Physical punishment is the best way to teach obedience.
SF8: Pursuit of self-interest (for individual and for the collective) is a value.
SF9: Self-reliance is a value.
SF10: Morality is linked with prosperity.
SF11: Do-gooders screw up the system.
SF12: Bad children are dependent.
SF13: The father is not supposed to meddle in the lives of the children once they are grown.
NP1: Children are born good and can be made better (same for the world).
NP2: The job of the parent is to nurture and to raise children to be nurturers.
NP3: Empathy for the child is a core value.
NP4: Responsibility for the child and for the self is a core value.
NP5: Providing protection is a core value.
NP6: Be a happy, fulfilled person and teach the child to be as well.
NP7: Freedom is a value.
NP8: Opportunity is a value.
NP9: Prosperity is a value.
NP10: Fairness is a value.
NP11: Open, two-way communication is a value.
NP12: Community building, service, and cooperation are values.
NP13: Trust and honesty are values.
The first step was complete. We had taken a polemical narrative of these metaphors and developed a series of codes that could be applied to the text of the debate. A series of questions and hypotheses could now be posed about this framework. How will these codes be distributed in the responses of Bush and Kerry? Do certain codes within each metaphor appear more frequently in the speech of one or the other of these candidates? Does the distribution of the codes support Lakoff’s arguments about conservatives and progressives having different worldviews and employing different frames?
The following two charts show the number of occasions Bush (B) and Kerry (K) invoked the components of each metaphor8: the Strict Father (SF) model is presented first, followed by the Nurturant Parent (NP)9:
The following are examples of the components that each candidate relied on most often:
SF1: The world is dangerous because of the existence of evil: “We’re facing a group of folks who have such hatred in their heart, they’ll strike anywhere, with any means.”
SF7: Physical punishment is the best way to teach obedience: “The best way to defeat [the enemy] is to never waver, to be strong, to use every asset at our disposal, is to constantly stay on the offensive and, at the same time, spread liberty.”
SF8: Pursuit of self-interest (for individual and for the
collective) is a value: “I wouldn’t join the International Criminal Court…I understand that in certain capitals around the world that that wasn’t a popular move…I just think trying to be popular, kind of, in the global sense, if it’s not in our best interest makes no sense. I’m interested in working with our [sic] nations and do a lot of it. But I’m not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.”
SF10: Morality is linked with prosperity:“And if we lose our will, we lose. But if we remain strong and resolute, we will defeat this enemy.”
NP12: Community building, service, and cooperation are values: “I think we need a president who has the credibility to bring the allies back to the table and to do what’s necessary to make it so America isn’t doing this alone.”
NP13: Trust and honesty are values: “What I’m trying to do is just talk the truth to the American people and to the world. The truth is what good policy is based on. It’s what leadership is based on.”
Three arguments can be made about the application of Lakoff’s framework based on this analysis. 1) Bush uses the Strict Father model more than Kerry uses the Nurturant Parent model. 2) Kerry uses the Strict Father model more than Bush uses the Nuturant Parent model. 3) There are three complicating cases for arguments (1) and (2): NP7, 12, and 13. The first two arguments clearly support Lakoff’s framework. The conservative candidate makes better use of the conservative metaphor, while the progressive candidate invokes the conservative metaphor as much as he does the progressive metaphor. But, how do we account for the complicating cases?
NP7 states that “Freedom is a value,” and Bush uses this component far more than Kerry. Similarly, Bush makes nearly as much use of NP13 – “Trust and honesty are values” – as Kerry. I believe these say more about an adjustment needed in Lakoff’s framework than an argument against its explanatory validity. The semantic categories of “freedom” and “honesty” are not at odds with conservative discourse generally, nor with Bush’s rhetoric specifically. Recall, for example, Bush’s use of “freedom” to resonate with the nationalistic discourse of American patriotism. “Freedom” and “honesty” may very well be progressive values, but they are also conservative ones. Much like “protection” (SF5 and NP5), they represent shared values, not juxtaposing values between the two metaphors.
NP12 states “Community building, service, and cooperation are values.” Kerry uses this component far more than Bush does. This appears to contradict Lakoff’s claim that progressives do not use their dominant metaphor as effectively as conservatives use theirs. However, this reading of the data misunderstands Lakoff. Lakoff’s argument was not in regard to a particular component of the metaphor, but the metaphor as a whole. Thus, for Kerry to truly invoke the progressive metaphor of the Nurturant Parent in a successful manner he would need to focus on more than just NP12 and NP13. In a sense, he focused on two components at the expense of others, leaving the bulk of his framing work unaccomplished.
Thus, Lakoff’s framework of conservative and progressive metaphorical frames helps explain the discourse of the first Bush-Kerry debate. Unlike our application of narrative structure, intertextuality, and textual semantics – all of which provided some interesting insight – Lakoff’s framework provided a coherent means of understanding the debate as a political event. More specifically, it helps explain the dissonance between Bush’s re-election and the apparent consensus that Kerry “won” the first debate impressively. By some standards Kerry may have performed better, for example: non-verbally through appearances, lack of repetition in his arguments, and a greater reliance on “facts.” But, Bush was much more effective at communicating conservative values and not communicating progressive values. Lakoff’s framework helps us understand just how articulate George W. Bush can be.
As I move on from Michigan State, I will remember David Dwyer fondly. I will remember him as a patient mentor, a humorous and insightful conversation partner, and someone ever eager to pursue new scholarly challenges. More than anything, though, I will remember his excitement when we found in the words of Bush and Kerry the words of Lakoff. Our increasing frustration and eventual success illustrates two important, intellectual lessons I learned from my experience as David’s student.
First, I learned the value of theoretical experimentation in the field of discourse and textual analysis. As scholars, our training includes an ever-evolving familiarity with different, complementary, and competing frameworks. Through our experience as researchers, we usually find some more appealing and more productive than others. When confronted with new analytical cases, we draw on the resources we have in an effort to make sense of and better understand the texts we are considering. And, it is not always the first framework we employ that is the most useful. Oftentimes it requires several attempts. By nature, this requires perseverance, patience, and confidence that greater insight is only a framework away.
Secondly, I learned that a trained analyst can read the same text repeatedly, and always find new ways of reading it. The notion that texts are polysemous is a truism among discourse analysts. All texts contain multiple meanings and the meaning that is, at least temporarily, accepted has as much (if not more) to do with the context of the reading as it does with the text itself. But, this truism takes on new life when we think about applying theoretical frameworks to better understand particular texts. Different frameworks elicit different areas of insight, and it is the task of the analyst to decide which insights are more revealing of the event and the cultural backdrop it occurs against. As I continue my scholarly career, I will always remember David Dwyer for helping me understand these lessons.
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1 Excerpts from the debate are incorporated throughout this essay. For a full text, see http://www.debates.org/pages/trans2004a.html.
2 For a full text of this agreement, see http://www.npr.org/documents/2004/2004.debate/debate_memo.pdf.
3 For reactions to the first Bush-Kerry debate, see http://www.reclaimdemocracy.org/political_reform/bi-partisan_appearances_real_debates.html. For a historical critique, see (Farah, 2004).
5 Labov qualified this to allow for the re-arrangement and embedding of components to suit the purpose of the narrative.
6 Cf., (Fairclough, 1989).
7 For an extended discussion of how “heart” is constructed in born-again discourse, see (Bielo, 2004).
8 In our analysis, these codes were applied to varying amounts of discourse units. In some cases, components were present in a single word, utterance, or sentence. In others, an entire response represented one case of one component.
9 SF5 and NP5 are omitted because they state the same value of “protection.”