I’ve heard from a lot of people about last month’s Word Watch. That column was supposed to be the final and definitive commentary on word use in the 2010 political campaign. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But ungrateful readers now insist that it didn’t do half the job it was intended to do. It omitted at least half the tale.
So fine, here’s the other half. Positioned here before the readers’ firing squad, I will proceed to condemn even more of the linguistic sins they’ve complained about. I hope this penance will gain Word Watch a reprieve.
First, the president. Readers wanted much more about him. For example, they wanted more about something he said in the closing days of the campaign, when he was interrupted by hecklers in Connecticut. The hecklers were yelling, “Fund global AIDS!” — which shows how much time these people devote to thinking about the words they use. What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize (“fund”) a dreadful disease (“AIDS”), and spread it everywhere (around the “globe”).
Obama’s response showed how carefully he himself considers the words he chooses. He reacted by repeating the protestors’ stupid slogan. “We’re funding global AIDS!” he said. “And the other side is not!” Then he did it again. Addressing the protestors, he intoned: “I think it would make a lot more sense for you guys to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS and chant at that rally, because we’re trying to focus on figuring out how to finance the things that you want financed, all right?”
Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Diagram that sentence, please. That’s what you get from Obama when he isn’t relying on his teleprompters — all right?
I’m not sure why I want to drag facts into a thing like this, but the biggest funder of the campaign against “global AIDS” (AIDS in foreign countries) was the last President Bush. Obama’s abuse of the Republicans was therefore just as vulgar as his abuse of the language. Yet he continued: “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It’s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives.”
What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize a dreadful disease, and spread it everywhere.
You might ask, “Why must the ‘folks’ feel more confident about the future before Obama goes after AIDS?”, but if you did, you would have a long time to wait for an answer. Everything the president said, like everything the protestors said, was completely nonsensical.
There was something in the president’s remarks that irritated Liberty’s readers even more than the general senselessness. It was Obama’s increasing reliance on that chummy old monosyllable “folks.” During the latter stages of the election campaign our readers heard "folks" constantly from him, and it didn’t take them long to become heartily sick of it. I’m sick of it too. I got sick of it when Bill O’Reilly started claiming that he was “looking out for the folks.” I’m much more sick of it now that Obama has adopted it as his trademarked way of talking down to voters — the invariable accompaniment of his dropped final “g’s” and pseudo-demotic images of common folks tryin’ tuh buy clothes for the kids an’ havin’ trouble payin’ the mortgage.
The most grating of Obama’s folksy images was his constantly reiterated picture of the Republicans drivin’ the car intuh the ditch an’ then expectin’ folks tuh let ‘em back in the car an’ even give ‘em back the keys. I’ve mentioned this silly image before, but readers wanted me to emphasize the way Obama grinned with pride every time he used it, as if it were the climax of his career as an intellectual. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it will be the only locution for which this man of “soaring rhetoric” is ultimately remembered. When the next generation of politically interested kids picks up a handbook of Famous Presidential Sayings, this president may get credit for nothing except that stupid business about the car.
What people insist on saying over and over again defines both them and their view of their audience. Obama’s thing about the car demonstrates how shallow he is, and how shallow he thinks we are.
As several readers suggested, however, if you want evidence of Obama's power as a political analyst, nothing tops a statement he made in his post-election press conference. On that occasion, he alluded to his vast expansion of federal power: “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach.”Hmm . . . People looked at what he (we) had done and said that this was looking like potential overreach. It wasn’t overreach, exactly, or even loosely; it was just something that some folks believed or felt might possibly turn into or look like overreach. And looking at those folks and sensing their vague emotional reactions, Obama contributed his own vague emotional reaction: he was sympathetic. How many boxes within boxes do you count in that weird non mea culpa?
Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors? Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America.
But everyone (even Liberty’s readers) would like to take a break from Obama at some point, so let’s take one now. Readers remain disgusted by a lot of things besides Obamaisms. Some of these folks believe that there may have been some potential overreach in the media’s constant use of the phrase “up for grabs.” “The election may have been a political football,” one reader pointed out, “but it was not a basketball. Still, every time it was mentioned in the papers or on the air, we were told that such and such a Senate seat was ‘up for grabs,’ or there were 435 desks in the House of Representatives that were ‘up for grabs,’ or some state election was so close that it was ‘up for grabs.’ Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors?”
Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America. It would, however, be nice to see whether the media could struggle on for just a few moments without these crutches.
Readers also indicated that there are many other political expressions of which they have had enough. A brief list: “grow the economy,” “put America back to work,” “energize the base,” “hope and change,” “double down,” "out-source," "foreign money," “a way forward,” “a roadmap to,” “man up,” and the current favorite, “triangulate.”
I share our readers’ shuddering aversion to these junk expressions. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my own nominee for worst set of words from the 2010 election season. There’s too much to choose from, but what sticks in my mind is a remark made by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, one of the most repulsive personalities of a political year in which repulsive things abounded.
This Crist, of whom we shall probably hear no more, was a Republican, but when he tried to get his party’s nomination for US Senator, he found himself far behind. He then decided to run as an independent, but he had minimal success in enticing Republican support. To win, therefore, he needed to gain huge numbers of Democratic votes. He worked hard on that. A self-styled “Reagan Republican,” he veered crazily to the left, accusing the conservative Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, of every kind of extremism. But Crist was still behind, so he tried to get the Democratic nominee to leave the race. To do that, he suggested (which was undoubtedly true) that Bill Clinton and, by extension, the White House, had so little confidence in the Democrat that they wanted him to withdraw from the race and endorse Crist.
This was a nutty move for Crist to make. It succeeded only in alienating core Democratic voters. Still, he avidly sought television interviews in which he could discuss backroom maneuvers designed to eject the duly nominated Democrat and throw the election to himself. Grinning with delight at astonished interviewers, he displayed his conviction that everything he did, and everything that might possibly be done for him, was not only right but noble, merely because it aided him. If this doesn’t sound surreal enough, add the fact that Crist possessed an angelic little face and snowy white angelic hair, and that he constantly discussed himself in the third person: “This is a Florida decision for Floridians to decide what they want — if they want an extremist like Marco Rubio or if they want a common-sense candidate like Charlie Crist.”
I hate it when people talk like that. But there was worse to come. Asked whether he had leaked the story of the backroom negotiations in order to score a political advantage, Crist adopted the plural of majesty and intoned, “We’re not causing trouble. We’re causing freedom.”
Causing freedom. The man was causing freedom.
Plato believed that there existed in the eternal Mind the “forms” or blueprints of everything that exists on earth. If I were to pick the Platonic form of the contemporary American politician, it would be Charlie Crist. That sounds bad, but there’s a good thing, too: Crist lost the election. Maybe, sometimes, the folks are smarter than the Platonic Mind.