Last Wednesday, General Jim Jones spoke before the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Just after thanking his hosts for the introduction, Jones launched into a two-minute jokey anecdote—though with a showman’s flare, he prefaced it by claiming it “happened recently, in Southern Afghanistan.”
You can watch the joke here, but for the short of it: A lost Taliban goes into the store of a Jewish merchant and asks for water. The shopkeeper has no water but mentions that he has a special on ties. The Taliban fighter is enraged, but somewhat consoled by the merchant’s advice that he walk two miles away to a restaurant, where there will certainly be plenty of water. The jihadi sets off, only to return to complain that he was turned away from the restaurant for—wait for it—not wearing a tie.
The White House’s official transcript of the event does not contain the joke, a fact that was mentioned, often archly, in many media accounts of the controversy.
But if you take a close look at the so-called transcript while watching Jones deliver the opening minutes of his remarks, you’ll note plenty of differences. Take just the opening two sentences as Jones actually said them:
Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Martin, for your very kind introduction, and for your leadership as the Institute’s new president.
And here’s how the transcript renders them:
Thank you all very much. Thank you, Martin Gross, for your very kind introduction, and for your leadership as the Institute’s new president.
Obviously, there’s no effective difference in meaning between the two passages. But the so-called transcript inserts (“all… Gross”) or omits (“ladies and gentlemen”) words. Similar discrepancies come in the sentences following the joke. It’s almost as if the person compiling the transcript wasn’t actually watching the speech.
Indeed, that’s what the White House says happened—that the release labeled “Remarks by National Security Advisor James L. Jones at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy” is actually his prepared remarks, obviously not a verbatim transcription speech he gave that day. (Not to take this too far, but it doesn’t look as if Jones is reading from the page as he tells the joke, and in his apology, he described it as “off the cuff.”)
It would certainly be appreciated if the White House had labeled this offering more carefully. That would have foreclosed anyone seeing conspiracy behind the transcript’s missing minutes. And it also illustrates the hazards, yet again, of relying too much on prepared remarks.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.