According to my rough calculations, our political tongue -- the language of campaigns, elections and, yes, governing -- is sustained by an army of maybe 10,000 professional babblers. They are the Quoted (White House officials, members of Congress and big-time candidates), the Quote Creators (speechwriters and press-release purveyors) and the Quote Users (reporters, columnists and TV correspondents).
And taken as a group -- with some notable exceptions -- they display all the originality of second-graders telling knock-knock jokes.
Think I am exaggerating?
Just remember all the times during the post-election session of Congress when senators and pundits alike went on cable TV to denounce "pork-barrel politics." The phrase was once a colorful description of wasteful federal spending, but no one in Washington has seen an actual pork barrel since the days when Zachary Taylor was president. Edward Everett Hale popularized the expression in an 1863 short story
that had nothing to do with politics. But according to my personal copy of "A Dictionary of American Politics" by Everett Brown and Albert Strauss (the definitive 1892 edition), "pork" was defined as "a term used in politics to designate the spoils of legislation."
So exactly why are we still using a term that was already a cliché in 1892? That was so long ago that the White House had just been equipped with a new technology called electricity and new slang phrases like "hold your horses" were entering the language.
Even more shopworn is the expression -- just four simple words -- that automatically identifies the speaker as someone who has been hanging around Congress far too long as an incumbent, a reporter or a lobbyist. Sure, you can write hymns to bipartisanship and prattle on about compromise in politically divided Washington, but please stop pledging to "work across the aisle." Nobody else in America -- other than a Capitol Hill gasbag -- talks about "across the aisle" unless the topic is seating for a wedding.
Already, I am braced for the linguistic assault from 2011 trench warfare in Washington and the verbal pyrotechnics from the 2012 presidential campaign, even if Sarah Palin -- the Elocution Queen of Alaska -- does not run. That is why I have compiled a personal list of political words and phrases that have outlived their usefulness. In the quest for original political rhetoric, these cliché-ridden expressions should be sent to the glue factory, consigned to the dustbin of history, and shoved down the booby hatch.
Some items on my list are merely banal -- such as calling a political desperation ploy a "Hail Mary pass." Maybe in the future we can call a nothing-left-to-lose political gambit an "Aqua Buddha spot
" after the brutal Democratic attack ad in Kentucky that failed to bring down Rand Paul.
Other expressions, though, are diabolical clumps of words that interfere with clear thought. Republicans like John Boehner revel in attacking Democrats for their "tax-and-spend agenda
." This is a moth-eaten GOP phrase: George H.W. Bush denounced the "philosophy of tax-and-spend" when he declared for the Republican nomination for president against Ronald Reagan in 1979. But tax-and-spend is what every democratic government has done since the days of Pericles. The political fissure between the Democrats and Republicans has always been over the next step -- whom you tax and on what you spend.
Here is the rest of my Lexicon of the Hackneyed and the Humdrum. These are political catch-phrases that I never want to hear again:
Grow the economy: This ungainly formulation, implying that the economy is a fragile orchid needing the tender ministrations of a dedicated gardener, was rarely employed until Bill Clinton ran for president. The NEXIS database turns up fewer than 200 versions of this awkward expression used by anyone in the world during the 1980s. But then Clinton declared in October 1991, "We've got to grow this economy, not shrink it" as he entered the presidential primaries. (Note to self: Never again write that anyone "threw his hat into the ring" unless a boxing match has been interrupted by a flying fedora.)
Sadly, this Clinton-ism grew like kudzu. Defending his tax-cutting zeal during an impromptu Sept. 4, 2001 press conference
, George W. Bush said, "What we ought to be thinking about is: How do we grow the economy of the United States?"
In truth, what presidents ought to be thinking about is: How do we shrink the use of this grating expression? Barack Obama, who has mostly grown the unemployment rate as president, claimed that his stimulus package would "grow the economy of tomorrow" in a Feb. 7, 2009, radio address
. And defending his grand Capitol Hill compromise
just two weeks ago, Obama assured business executives, "I am absolutely convinced that this tax-cut plan, while not perfect, will help grow our economy."
Some might argue that three sets of presidential speechwriters can't all be wrong. But I see a nation where presidents concerned about economic growth resurrect John Kennedy's more mellifluous promise to "get America moving again."
: John McCain's only lasting accomplishment since the 2008 election has been single-handedly to destroy this great 19th
century American word that honored Samuel Maverick's refusal to brand his cattle. William Safire in his indispensable "Safire's New Political Dictionary
" defined a maverick as "one who is unorthodox in his political views and disdainful of party loyalty, who bears no man's brand."
During his 2000 presidential primary campaign, McCain appeared to be the personification of such a maverick as he challenged Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts, campaign reform and the divine right of George W. Bush to the GOP nomination. A Google search of book references
shows much greater use of the word maverick when McCain was running for president than when "Maverick" starring James Garner was a hit 1950s TV Western. A NEXIS search unearthed 1,088 media references describing McCain as a maverick in 2000 alone.
The media mob (myself included) stuck with this sobriquet far too long as McCain morphed into an off-the-rack Republican senator. Even when McCain claimed in a Newsweek interview
before this year's Arizona GOP primary, "I never considered myself a maverick," the magazine insisted on using as its subhead: "A maverick fights for his political life -- and his soul." McCain's amnesiac denial of his unbranded political history (a 2008 McCain campaign ad proclaimed him -- you can guess what's coming -- "the original maverick
") makes a mockery of the political legacy of Samuel Maverick.
The next time a national political figure shimmers with party-be-damned independence, we should dust off that other evocative 19th century political coinage -- mugwump. Derived from an Algonquin word, mugwumps were originally Republicans who bolted the GOP in 1884 to protest the nomination of James Blaine for the presidency. Mugwump will become a particularly useful term in 2012 if the Republican Party fractures over the presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin -- McCain's other enduring contribution.
Progressive: For the past two decades, the ideological divide in America has been between Republicans who call themselves "proud conservatives" and Democrats who stammer, "Well...um...er...I don't believe in labels." When pressed, most of these skittish Democrats invoke the fig-leaf term "progressive" to describe themselves rather than the more familiar and descriptive moniker of "liberal."
After a campaign year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats, it is safe to call this the worst rebranding effort since Blackwater -- the scandal-scarred security contractor -- tried to transform itself into Xe Services. Nobody is fooled when liberals put on this bargain-basement camouflage. Winnie the Pooh
was more authentic when he pretended to be a small black cloud (rather than a tubby bear hanging onto a balloon) so he could gull the bees into giving up their honey.
Actually, there is one influential American who has been convinced by this linguistic subterfuge -- Glenn Beck. The Fox News host has long been on a rampage against the Progressive Era, the moment when America purportedly went off the rails by enacting Constitutional amendments permitting (warning: those with weak hearts should proceed with care) a federal income tax and direct election of senators. As Beck bluntly put it during a pre-Christmas broadcast, "The enemy to our Constitution is the progressive movement."
Viral: The metaphorical version of this word has so trumped its literal meaning that these days a swine-flu epidemic would probably be described as having "gone Internet."
It is probably a futile battle, but could we, at least in politics, limit the number of gaffes, gotcha videos and TV spots that we describe as "viral." Sure, Christine O'Donnell qualified with her Salem Witch Trial defense
: "I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." Maybe even Carly Fiorina's bizarro "demon sheep
" ads made the cut. But that is about it for Campaign 2010.
During the run-up to the 2012 primaries, please avoid claiming that anything involving this-bland-is-my-bland GOP presidential possibilities like Mitt Romney and John Thune is viral. Solid political figures like these have to work hard to even become epidemic. And -- at all costs -- never type this redundant sentence: "The buzz has gone viral."
Horse race Metaphors
: Seven years ago in a column, I piously announced my intention
to write about politics without resorting to hackneyed tropes like referring to one candidate as the "front-runner" and another as "trying to break out of the pack." No more "finish lines," "stretch runs," "marathons" and "sprints" for me. Instead, I was going to concoct fresh imagery (maybe based on other sports like tiddlywinks and jai alai) to add literary zest to Campaign 2004.
A few days later that resolve died from natural causes (or, as the autopsy report put it, "intense deadline pressures") in a hotel room in Des Moines on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. A few failed sentences ("John Kerry faced his moment of truth like a matador...") made me realize that the metaphoric union of horse racing and politics represents celestial harmony -- the perfect marriage of trope and truth.
Some political clichés like horse race metaphors survive for a reason. But so many others (personal bugaboos
like Republicans deliberately dropping the "ic" in "Democratic" and liberals braying about "working families") endure because of unimaginative politicians and mediocre speechwriters.
Maynard Parker, a legendary editor at Newsweek during the 1980s, used to edit copy by inserting a phrase that he had installed on the save-get keys of his early computer: "Say Better Please." That should be the goal of all of us as we struggle to find language colorful and evocative enough to describe the political panorama of the New Year.