How to Sound Presidential

The orations of politicians, George Orwell once complained, "vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech." It's an opiate-of-the-masses view of political jargon—one that's soundly rebuffed by William Safire, The New York Times's "On Language" guru, whose Political Dictionary will be rereleased next month in time for party conventions and the general election, both historical hotbeds of new "po-lingo."

Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, hardly views the language of politics as Orwellian brainwashing. That said, he's the first to acknowledge that our vocabulary shapes, as much as it reflects, the way we think about the world. The names of laws ("death tax," "Clear Skies Initiative") and the characterizations of would-be leaders ("bull moose," "amiable dunce") have unconscious effects on even the savviest voters. It's why spinmeisters stay in business and why a politician's word choice can make a legend (FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself") or break a career (George Allen's "macaca" blooper in 2006).

So what makes for effective political slang? Safire says that alliteration usually spawns memorable phrases ("Ban the bomb," "Tippecanoe and Tyler too"), as does borrowing from the Bible ("wilderness years"), zoology ("doves and hawks," "lame duck") and horse racing ("running mate," "shoo-in"). But Safire's not choosy: both the wildly successful and the widely derided of American political argot are included in his 829-page dictionary. What began in 1968 as a Beltway junkie's labor of love has turned into an authoritative collection of whistle-stopping campaign slogans and vicious slings and arrows of partisan attacks that stretches all the way back to the Founding Fathers (who came up with terms like "electioneer" and the party "ticket").

Last updated in 1993, before the U.S. political lexicon had acquired "soccer moms" (1996), "fuzzy math" (2000) and "Swift Boat spot" (2004), the book's newest version includes rich linguistic bequeathals from both the Clinton and second Bush White Houses. Inevitably, the language of the Bill-and-Hil years is riddled with scandal-related phrases: "Whitewater," "I didn't inhale" and "Monicagate," with its attendant "vast right-wing conspiracy."

But Clinton's coinages hardly match those of "Dubya," whose grammatical befuddlement has given us "the Decider" and "misunderestimate" (called "Bushisms," as were his father's lapses), and whose administration's post-9/11 "War on Terror" and Iraq invasion have spawned "axis of evil," "regime change," "shock and awe" and "mission accomplished." Language snobs may snicker at Bush's malapropisms, but his tenure could be remembered as the most linguistically fertile since the era of Safire's old boss. As Bush noted in 2001, "My critics don't realize I don't make verbal gaffes; I'm speaking in the perfect forms and rhythms of ancient haiku." Wonder what Orwell would say to that.

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