“It’s so insane,” said Sean Hannity at the start of his May 16 TV show, “there’s so much news; we’ll try to get it into an hour.” He followed this protest against the constraints of time with a summary of what he planned to say in his “opening monologue,” which itself turned out to be a summary of what was going to happen still later in the show: “we’ll have more of that in just a second.” His insane, or at least cockeyed, attempt to outline his remarks lasted 13 minutes, about one-third of the show’s noncommercial time.
Hannity is perhaps the biggest timewaster in “public life.” He is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question. If he seems to ask a question and they try to answer it, he breaks in to let them know what he would say if anyone put the question to him. The processional and recessional to every segment of these agonizing conversations is a list of the top ten crimes of the Democratic Party, often interrupted by the reminder that he’s “said this again and again.” Hannity could easily get the news into an hour, but there aren’t enough hours in anybody’s day for whatever he thinks he’s doing.
The subject of this month’s column is extras, add-ons, timewasters, and verbal extensions of all kinds. If you like today’s political and cultural discourse, you should be grateful for these things, because without them, that discourse would hardly exist.
Sean Hannity is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve probably heard the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for his brevity. Someone told him that she thought she could get him to say more than two words in response to her, and he replied, “You lose.” This story has taken many forms, in some of which the woman is Dorothy Parker, the writer. That is certainly untrue. What is true is that the story first appeared in public in a speech delivered at a lunch at which Coolidge was present, and that Coolidge immediately denied it. Whether he did so with a twinkle in his eye is not recorded, but I want to think he did, because this probably false anecdote is the only thing that many people know about him, and they like it.
We all like brevity — in other people. We feel, perhaps, that their verbal restraint gives us more time to babble, and that couldn’t be bad. But there is still the problem of how to hold their attention, or at least to make ourselves feel that we do.
Lord Chesterfield, in his immortal letters on social decorum, gives this advice to his son (October 19, 1748):
Talk often, but never long: in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. . . .
Never hold anybody by the button or the hand, in order to be heard out; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.
We no longer hold unwilling listeners by the button — partly because Chesterfield’s letters helped to improve people’s manners — but we have many other means of coercing attention. One is by being elected to public office. Every public official, from the president to the village chief of police, has or believes he has the right to talk a hundred times longer than he ought to.
We all like brevity — in other people.
How many times has your TV or radio enjoyment been interrupted by a press conference at which a police department spokesman introduces the officer in charge of the investigation, who introduces the chief of police, who elaborately thanks the mayor, sheriff, fire chief, county director of emergency services, and several other microphone-attracted worthies, not forgetting special words for all first responders, whether involved or not, and then, having congratulated them for their incredible and unbelievable performance, slowly reviews information already reported, finally refusing to answer any questions — because, after all, the episode is under investigation?
And how many times have you tuned into a congressional hearing on some issue of real importance (I know, that’s narrowing it down a bit), only to be treated to hours of partisan orations, pretending to be questions? If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will be so swathed in verbiage that it goes nowhere.
How do these people get elected? How do they get nominated? And why is Hannity, Baron of Blowhards, Prince of Pish-Posh, one of the most popular people on television? Even politicians have to compete for an audience, and these people succeeded. How?
If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will go nowhere.
The explanation is that some people who could never be held by a button are easily held by an attitude. They feel comforted by existential affinity. The rule of novel writing has always been: if they like 200 pages of this stuff, they’ll like 800 pages better — even if it’s pointless background, meaningless subplot, and purely rhetorical conversation. You may not care what happens to the Joad family, but people who do care, or feel they should care, don’t mind that The Grapes of Wrath is four times longer than it needs to be. They don’t need to be persuaded; they like it already.
In the same way, there are people who leap out of bed in the morning, eager for the endlessly repeated shriekings of The View, and cannot go to sleep at night without the endlessly repeated inanities of Stephen Colbert. I know an intelligent person who thinks that Hillary Clinton is “a brilliant public speaker.” Someone else I know claims that President Trump “goes right to the heart of things.” In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.
Such elective affinities have always been important. But at some times in human history there has been a general belief that a serious public utterance should have a broader appeal — an appeal, perhaps, to taste and insight. That’s not true of our time. Today the great controversial documents are hideous bores, sickening bores, Satanic bores — from Clinton’s speeches to Trump’s speeches to (worst of all) Bernie Sanders’ speeches, and finally to the recent work of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and others), elaborately entitled A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election. Already you can see that the authors have no trouble piling up words. They also seem to know that if you pile them high enough, no one will be able to find the topic. Which would be a problem, if that were your purpose — to discuss your topic. If not, so much the better. Reading that title, who would think the report had anything to do with the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails?
In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.
And who would think that people wanted to read it to find out whether the FBI conducted a biased investigation of Clinton? That’s the question everybody wanted the report to answer — but if you have enough words, you don’t need to answer anything.
The document frequently refers to bias, but this is the way it does it:
There were clearly tensions and disagreements in a number of important areas between [FBI] agents and prosecutors. However, we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed in Chapter Five, or that the justifications offered for these decisions were pretextual. (p. iii)
Pretextual? Where have you ever seen that word before? Does it have anything to do with those monkeys that hang by their tails? And speaking of animals, how do you decode that elephantine passage about “tensions and disagreements” and not finding “documentary or testimonial evidence” that bias “directly affected . . . specific [as opposed to nonspecific] investigative decisions”? I think it means that nobody wrote or spoke a confession about having made a biased decision. When you take the pillows off, this is a hard bed to lie in. Nobody ever takes out a piece of paper and writes, as testimonial evidence, “I let Hillary off the hook because I wanted to throw the election to her.”
But Horowitz may be smarter than he sounds. He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement. So, nine pages later, we discover this passage, buried in another mountain of words:
[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice. (p. xii)
Were you expecting the second half of that amazingly long series of words to say, “this indicates that the two investigations were biased”? Didn’t the first half reveal the documentary or testimonial evidence of biased investigation? But no, the second half identifies only a biased state of mind (which is evidently quite different from simple, two-syllable bias) and a mere willingness to take official action to impact the prospects. The climactic revelation is that this willingness was antithetical to the FBI’s core values. Well! I am so shocked! Who woulda thunk it?
He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement.
One of my favorite sayings is something I heard from a local preacher. He said he was a strong supporter of the First Amendment, because it lets “everyone talk long enough to show how much of a fool he is.” That’s the problem with piling up words, isn’t it? And that’s what we see in the official response of the FBI to the inspector general’s report. Here’s a highlight:
No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the [FBI’s] team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision [sic] not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping [sic] of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed [did anyone proofread this?] with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.
No evidence, then, except for this and that, and OK, there was also that, and then there’s that other thing. . . . Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.
But they have plenty of competition in official circles. You don’t have to live in Washington; you don’t have to be writing 500-page reports; you can be a blowhard without leaving the provinces, and in only a few ill-chosen words.
Here’s a typical political utterance, from some California potentate grabbing a mike to emit a series of sounds. This person is an advocate of “Title 10,” about which he states: “Title 10 has been a lifeline for about four million Americans in this country.” Never mind what Title 10 is. Never mind that “lifeline” is an image without a fact or definition, and therefore pointless. Never mind that politicians’ statistics are never right, and known never to be right. The idea is simply to make a sentence by throwing things into it. Length equals substance.
Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.
Consider the speaker’s time-wasting substitute for “people”: Americans in this country. (As distinguished from Americans outside this country.) Americans, of course, is better than people, because it drags in the conservative, nationalist attitude to complement the modern-liberal, throw-out-the-lifeline notion. But why in this country? One reason is that about 25 years ago leftist politicians started adding that phrase to every critique they made of America, as in, “There are 30 million people without health insurance in this country.” It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them. This phrase flourished so mightily that even conservatives now use it, and use it as obsessively as the liberals, and with no hint of satire or, indeed, of any purpose except maintaining a continuous sound. It’s an all-purpose timewaster, one of many phrases useful for bogarting air time: due diligence, first priority, path forward, moving forward, going forward, up for grabs, risk their lives for us every day, 20-20 hindsight, what’s at stake for us as a nation, dear to us as a nation, our values as a nation, never before in our nation’s history, revisit the issue, only time will tell, remains to be seen, nation of immigrants, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, tough road [sic] to hoe, thank you for your service. It’s there to take up space, to keep any other sounds from breaking in, to hold you by the button.
The dumbest of time wasters is the immemorial ya know, still popular after all these years and, I’m sorry to hear, even more popular than it was 20 years ago, when it was the chief verbal identifier of teenagers and illiterate sports figures. Now it’s everywhere.
The host of a morning talk show on one of my local radio stations recently lavished an hour on an interview with a young woman whom he identified as a former assistant superintendent of the school district. She was following up on a mother’s complaint about alleged mistreatment of her handicapped son by a special education teacher. I was stuck in traffic and got to hear almost all of this. Only my sense of duty as a reporter on linguistic developments kept me from turning it off, or killing myself in despair. The commercials were bliss compared with the interview — because of ya know.
It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them.
I couldn’t tell whether the ex-superintendent’s charges were justified. All my available energy was required just to figure out what she was saying — an attempt in which I failed. She was incapable of narrating any events that took place outside her head. She harped on how she felt, how greatly she was outraged, how greatly she continued to be outraged. She had innumerable ways of repeating her outrage. But what had happened? The host tried to lead her into saying what had happened by summarizing part of the story, but she refused to take the hint. Nevertheless, with the aid of “ya know” she talked continually. There was at least one “ya know” in every sentence, and usually more than one. Some sentence-like bits of debris consisted almost entirely of that phrase. I estimated that by the time I reached my destination she had used “ya know” about 400 times. This is a person whose profession is teaching, who once supervised and presumably trained teachers, and who made no mention of being fired because she was judged to be inarticulate. She was obviously hired despite that disability. What, I wondered, were the speech habits of the person who did not get the job?
Well, maybe that person is now in Congress. If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long. Faced with the choice of point in time or point or time, you always select point in time. No one has to guess whether you’ll say use or utilize; naturally, it will be utilize. Between single and singular, you will infallibly choose the longer one. And now you’re giving us fulsome instead of full.
The ubiquitous Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may not have originated this brain-dead attempt to make full still fuller, but he popularized it. About May 4, before Horowitz published his report, Gowdy admonished him, “It is of the utmost importance that your review be as fulsome, complete and unimpeded as possible.” As you see, Gowdy is almost as good at this stuff as Horowitz. One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three: complete, unimpeded, full. And one syllable would be enough for full, but that must have sounded hasty, so he turned it into two syllables: fulsome. Unluckily, that word is not synonymous with full, and is almost always derogatory: “fulsome kisses” come to mind, as do William Congreve’s “fulsome lies and nauseous flattery.”
If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long.
Well, so Gowdy made a mistake one time. No, he didn’t. On May 11, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he repeated this illiteracy, twice, burbling about his expectations for a “fulsome report,” a report that would present a “fulsome picture.”
By June 7, Department of Justice hacks, who are Gowdy’s political enemies, had caught his disease. On that day, Sara Carter reported on the DOJ’s constant slow-walking of documents to congressional committees:
[A] DOJ official said with regard to not providing the documents on Thursday, “Although the Department and FBI would have liked to provide this information as early as this week [I’ll bet they did], officials have taken a little additional time to provide the most fulsome answers to the members’ questions as possible.”
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Carter’s source is the one person in Washington who knows what “fulsome” means and is accurately describing the way officials write. Remember Congreve’s words about “fulsome lies.”
The final word, for this month, on officials’ determination to turn blah into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah comes from the aforementioned Peter Strzok, the secret police agent who wrote of Trump’s presidency, “We’ll stop it.” Whatever you think of the sentiment, the expression showed admirable restraint and perspicuity.
One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three.
But when confronted by congressional investigators with the evidence that he had, at least once, said something brief and to the point, Strzok haughtily denied the charge, implying that anyone who found a simple and direct meaning in anything he said in an email had committed a misidentification of genre similar to confusing Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a hand-written sign reading “Watch Your Step”:
To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re [sic] some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.
In the Clinton era, parse started to be used as an effete synonym for “figure out what the president’s sentences really mean.” Strzok put a new (to me) spin on the word: parse down. Let’s try to follow this. He believes that it’s wrong to take a simple statement and reduce what is already in “shorthand” until you get something that is like a contract for a car — which, as we know is a long, long, redundantly long document — thus discovering meanings that are not consistent with the generic expectations of text messagers.
In this case, the something was a translation of “we’ll stop it” into “we’ll stop it.”
With many strange words Strzok demanded that his simplest declarations be given a meaning so complicated that it could be reached only by refusing to parse down the shorthand, thus producing, by not parsing, the real message for which the shorthand stood — a message, I assume, of approximately 100,000 words.