Safire On Political Language



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The language of political campaigning sparkles with coinages, clangs with old and new symbols and fills the hall with updated echoes of past political struggles. Here’s a selection of ’08-isms.

Symbol of the little guy: John Q. Public made his debut as the baseball fan rooting for the 1922 New York Giants. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was the economist William Graham Sumner’s the forgotten man, sighted by the new president “at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” At the 1956 Republican convention, a dump-Nixon rump movement nominated the nonexistent Joe Smith; he was later replaced by Joe Six-Pack as cultural hero of those in 1864 who hailed the great unwashed and in 1969 emerged victorious as the silent majority.

This year, Gov. Sarah Palin modernized the soccer mom with the hockey mom and the Wal-Mart mom. (That chain has a great euphemism for the guy on the way out who makes sure you’re not stealing stuff: the exit greeter.) John McCain brought the unforgotten everyman up to date in the third presidential debate as Joe the Plumber. Suddenly, plumber — a word associated with nefarious leak plugging in the Watergate era — emerged as the ringing sobriquet of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio. This big, bald, salt-of-the-earth fellow, worried about taxes, elicited a damaging answer from a canvassing Barack Obama that concluded, “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Spreading, or sharing, the wealth — as against creating the wealth — was promptly pounced upon and roundly denounced by McCain-Palin conservatives. That was because the phrase has long been used to describe the discredited socialist scheme of income redistribution popularized during the Great Depression: the 1934 Share-Our-Wealth Society was the political organization headed by the Louisiana senator Huey Long, a too-aggressive Progressive. Its slogan was “Every Man a King,” taken from a speech by William Jennings Bryan, the perennial Democratic presidential candidate around a century ago.

The spread-the-wealth remark enabled McCain to charge, “Senator Obama’s plans are class warfare,” a charge effectively leveled at Democrats in 2004. Its origin is in the Marx-Engels “Communist Manifesto,” as the German Klassenkampf, more accurately translated as “class struggle.”

Weeks before his evocation of Joe the Plumber, McCain came under fire for his statement seeking to calm the early-October financial panic: “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” That brought the derisive Obama riposte: “What economy are you talkin’ about?” (The letter g has been stricken from the political alphabet.) Justin Fox of Time magazine said the McCain phraseology, reminiscent of Herbert Hoover’s attempt at reassurance, “may go down as one of the great blunders of presidential campaign history.” Fox noted, however, that the United States work force and American ingenuity were surely fundamentals, “and it’s not at all crazy to argue that these fundamentals are strong.” (Updated political adage: “It ain’t what you say, or even the way that you say it — but it’s who said it that way before.”)

The derogation of derogation is doing well. Beanbag, a children’s game whose object is easy to catch, made a comeback this year. Mudslinging, as a term, is passé; time was, Adlai Stevenson could coin a Confucianist epigram, “He who slings mud generally loses ground,” but mud has lost its dirtiness in the vocabulary of dirty tricks. “It’s Sliming Time (Again)” was a headline in The Nation last month; Eric Alterman, its liberal media columnist, began a paragraph with “Sure, politics ain’t beanbag, but . . . ” The but almost always follows the bag; McCain recently said of politicking: “It’s not an easy business. It’s not beanbag. But it is exhilarating. It’s exciting.” Obama, in the spring primaries, added a local touch: “Politics ain’t beanbag; that’s what they say in Chicago.” The aphorism was indeed created in that city, first used in The Chicago Evening Post in 1895 by Finley Peter Dunne, repeated a few years later by Dunne’s creation, “Mr. Dooley,” in his Irish brogue: “Politics ain’t beanbag. ’Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists ’d do well to keep out iv it.”

Boneheaded emerged as a favored self-deprecating Obama-ism. He used it first to describe his dealings with the Chicago real estate developer and fixer Tony Rezko and returned to the word last month to characterize a remark he made to San Francisco fund-raisers regarding small-town Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Obama told Matt Bai in The Times Magazine that it “was my biggest boneheaded move.” As an endearing Americanism associated with a baseball blunder, the word is not as severe as “foolish” and less insensitive than “dumb.”

Heartbeat from the presidency got a good run this year in the sustained belittlement of Governor Palin as potential vice president. Its origin, though without the metaphoric heartbeat, came from Mark Hanna, in 1900 the manager of the Republican William McKinley’s presidential campaign, regarding the selection of Theodore Roosevelt as running mate: “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the White House?”

The Bradley Effect — a possible misleading of pollsters by voters explored in this space in September — was a phrase that received much thumb sucking among the punditariat during October and will either enter or permanently depart the political language this week.

Close the deal keeps popping up, more than in previous campaigns, mainly directed at Obama. Just before the April Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Senator Hillary Clinton asked, “Why can’t he close the deal, with his extraordinary financial advantage?” (After she won that primary, Obama said, “The way we’re going to close the deal is by winning,” as he subsequently showed in achieving the nomination.) But that vogue phrase, rooted in business lingo, lasted through October: “The Speech That Could Close the Deal” was the Washington Post headline over a column by David Ignatius, and The Times Magazine headlined an article about the working-class vote “Can Obama Close the Deal With Those White Guys?” In the cliché derby, the doubting close the deal is running neck and neck with the affirmative the race is Obama’s to lose as we approach the finish line.

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