Alex Taylor Column October 19, 2008

Language is the first casualty in most presidential campaigns

As we enter the final weeks of the most important presidential election in decades, it’s important to stop and realize that this was no ordinary campaign. It’s not your standard challenger-versus-incumbent race. These are two unusual candidates.

One candidate skyrocketed from nowhere to the O-zone in just two years. The other has spent most of his life working for the government, usually annoying the leaders of both parties.

Now, one will win and one will lose. When that happens, this campaign will fade into history —  including all of the rhetoric and, I hope, all of the terrible campaign slogans.

As a newspaperman, I cannot help but lament that the greatest casualty of this race will be the English language and the way it has been used to market bad ideas and confuse people rather than communicate coherently. Terms such as“change you can believe in,” “maverick,” “shore up” the economy, “my friends,” “drill, baby, drill,” “Joe Six-Pack,” “Wall Street vs. Main Street” have been tossed about frequently. The list goes on and gets more annoying.

Presidential politics has always been a holding tank for bad English. President Clinton actually asked a federal prosecutor to explain exactly “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” He ultimately determined it to mean the “current state of affairs” and was able to honestly answer the question: At that very moment, in front of the prosecutor, he was not having an affair with that woman — Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton’s successor coined the term, now widely used, “strategery” and encouraged OB/GYNs to “practice their love on their patients.”

I think it has something to do with being on the spot all the time and being tired most of the time.

Ever-present video cameras don’t help, either. Still, I look forward to putting some of the more exhausted rhetoric to rest.

Let’s start with “shore up.” Everyone wants to “shore up” the economy. Sure, that sounds like a great idea. In fact, there’s no one who would disagree. That’s because it doesn’t mean anything. Best case, it refers to the sinking economy and encourages us to do something to support it — to “shore it up” like a worn-out boat in dry dock. But even then, I’m not real happy about it.

How about “change you can believe in.” This sounds so very lofty — something that might be expected from someone who has written two autobiographies at the ripe old age of 47. But what does it mean?

Change is typically used as a verb, and verbs are hard words to believe in. In this case, it’s a noun, but still makes little sense. It’s hard to believe in a state of something being different. You can hope for a change, imagine a change, believe it will happen, but to believe in it as an end in itself is counter-intuitive. To his credit, Obama has told insiders he never liked the slogan, but stuck with it because it caught on.

“My friends,” we now get to the hokiest of campaign-isms. McCain has been around a long time, but this is a phras that people haven’t used successfully in almost 50 years. It’s kind of cute, but using it multiple times in one passage is like getting an overdose of Metamucil. It’s just not good.

I won’t belabor Obama’s intentional misuse of “lipstick on a pig,” or Sarah Palin’s sense of identity with “Joe Six-Pack.” I would like to spend the remainder of this space on the most annoying saying of all.

Ever since the economic bailout package was announced, everyone has said we must make sure we get the money off of “Wall Street and on to Main Street.” Much like shoring something up, this sounds like a great idea, but makes very little sense — in fact it’s what got us into this hole in the first place.

In 1999, the Clinton administration successfully lobbied Fannie Mae to loosen its stodgy (and reasonably risk-free) lending practices by accusing it — through the Department of Housing and Urban Development — of racial and social discrimination in its lending practices. So, they pushed more high-risk loans onto “Main Street.”

Main Street is where all that money was gobbled up. In fact, a bunch of people came in from the alleys behind Main Street and got some high-risk mortgages. All that money that Fannie and Freddie was layering on people who couldn’t pay it back was coming from Wall Street, where people hungrily bought up those mortgages and quickly mushed them into sausage and sold them to investors.

So the money already did flow from Wall Street to Main Street, and that’s where it disappeared. Of course it doesn’t sound good to say that. The most accurate description of the bailout, which both candidates are supporting, is getting those risky loans off of Main Street and into the U.S. Treasury. But that of course sounds really bad.

I guess reality doesn’t translate well into campaign rhetoric. So, we’ll just have to endure it a bit more until this election — with all of it’s smoke-and-mirrors rhetoric — is finally over.

In the meantime, my friends, I might just go be a maverick, head over to Main Street, shore up a few cold beers with Joe Six-Pack and try to believe in change.


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