J. William Fulbright, the cerebral and irascible late senator, once was chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when a witness asserted that Fulbright had "implied" something.
The senator responded: "Sir, you might have inferred it, but I did not imply it."
To imply is to express indirectly. That is to say that the speaker does any implying. To infer is to derive a conclusion. The hearer does any inferring.
Implication and inference can coincide. But sometimes you can have one without the other.
That brings us to what Michelle Obama, wife of Barack, said the other day. Did she imply a shot at Hillary Clinton? Or did we merely infer it?
Here's what she said to a cheering Chicago audience: Presidential candidates need "to do role-modeling," adding, "If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House. Can't do it."
Was Barack's bride saying Hillary's worthiness for president was fatally impaired by Bill's tomcatting? Was she bragging that her own prospective commander in chief stayed on the short leash, unlike JFK, FDR, even, they tell us, Ike?
It was almost certainly our inference, not her implication.
That is to say Mrs. Obama surely didn't mean it. Likely she merely spoke indelicately, even rashly, unintentionally inviting our rather obvious interpretation.
If so, it serves to explain the exasperating caution of the more politically disciplined presidential candidates and their spouses, surrogates and spokesmen -- usually the front-runners, meaning those with something to lose, such as Hillary Clinton.
The Obamas aren't going to make a lot of points with Democratic primary voters taking potshots, or being misinterpreted as taking potshots, at the Clinton marriage.
Democrats have spent too many years and too much energy explaining that all that business doesn't matter in the public arena.
Smug judging of personal lives is the usual purview of moralizing, often hypocritical, Republicans -- your Gingriches, Livingstons, Hydes, Vitters and Haggards. They talk family values while on their way to see their girlfriend, prostitute or boyfriend.
Whether the Clintons have any kind of traditional romantic attachment is, in the end, their business, not ours -- just as the intimate nature of your own marriage is no business of anyone else.
And if Mrs. Obama is saying the betrayed wife's managerial skills are to blame for her husband's philandering, then she has backhanded more than Hillary, but millions of women.
Another thing: You'd have to conclude that, by any evident and meaningful measure, the Clintons pass Michelle's White House test. They stayed married when others bailed all around them, and they brought up a daughter almost universally extolled as an exemplary woman.
Here's what I'd advise Mrs. Obama: Don't go there or make the careless mistake of appearing to go there. Keep that powder dry until the general election in case your man is the nominee and gets Rudy Giuliani as the Republican opponent.
Swing voters might be more receptive to your implications, or pleased with their own inferences.
Should one cavort openly in public office with another woman while still actually married? And what are we to make of one whose own child supports not him, but, in fact, Barack Obama? If one can't get his own daughter to support him, why should he get the rest of us to vote for him?
There's an implication Michelle Obama might offer for our inference on or about October 2008.
If it's Hillary versus Rudy, the former would actually have more room to talk on this matter than the latter. She's a victim; he's a perpetrator.
There's irony for you.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is email@example.com.