In a sense, Geoffrey Nunberg’s "Talking Right" is a guidebook for political writers as guardians of straight talk in a world of what he calls "linguistic dexterity," where fact repeatedly is spun into fancy and vice versa. He focuses on conservatives’ more effective legerdemain as an explanation for the Democrats’ oft-losing struggle for self-identification. But what he describes is a word game played by both sides that imposes a nonpartisan burden on the news media to unmask the tricksters.
The book is a perceptive updating of a political phenomenon that goes back at least to the days of Richard Nixon, one of whose most successful undertakings was the demonization of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The manipulation and distortion of the language of politics to spread a veneer of truth and accuracy over a pack of lies and/or misrepresentations and to soften or camouflage one’s own deceptive policies and proposals is even older than that. But it was in the Nixon years that such tactics threw liberalism onto the defensive and cleared a path for the flowering of the conservative movement in the Ronald Reagan years and beyond.
The clarion call ironically was sounded in the 1964 defeat of the straight-talking Barry Goldwater. He told his fellow conservatives to "wake up" to the opportunities facing them if only they would unite and organize for an assault on the liberal bastion, whose pursuit of bigger and costlier government was the antithesis of their own political gospel.
Nixon’s sweeping attack in 1968 on departing Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, with the unintentional assistance of Vietnam War and civil rights protesters whose words, dress and lifestyle offended much of America, achieved a political crucifixion of liberalism. Nixon’s characterization of his law-and-order pitch as "the peace forces against the criminal forces" offered a good guys-vs.-bad guys simplification of the voters’ choice in that year of unruly street demonstrations.
With his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, pointedly accentuating the negative in transparently flamboyant rhetoric designed to amuse the faithful while trashing the opposition, Nixon showed the way to subsequent benders of words and phrases. And in doing so, Nunberg contends, the conservatives stole the very language of politics from the tongued-tied Democrats.
It’s a claim that many Democrats and liberals will reluctantly acknowledge, as they have scrambled unsuccessfully in each new election over the past 40 years to counter it, with the exception of the Bill Clinton years. His two victories offered validation of the author’s argument that the Democrats’ salvation in this battle of words lies "in capturing the language of everyday political discussion" as Clinton did, rather than relying on meaningless, often-incomprehensible slogans. For the Republicans, Nunberg says, it has been that skill more than "in coining distracting catchphrases" that has been the key in the conservatives’ post-Watergate resurrection.
Indeed, since the Nixon years and his pardon that helped render Gerald Ford unelectable in 1976, the only other Republican presidential nominee defeated was George H. W. Bush, who in 1992 dismissed "the vision thing" and never connected with the guy on Main Street.
Language and the Political Press
In the conservative turnaround, the challenge to the political journalists is not so much to assess which party does a better job obscuring reality. Rather, it’s to decipher for the public the linguistic obfuscations, exaggerations and deceptions that convey false claims or accusations by the perpetrator. In that sense, the task is no different from the one that has confronted reporters on the campaign trail since the days of the horse-and-buggy and, more recently, the portable typewriter.
In all this combat, the skill and sometimes the audacity of the relentless conservative assault on liberalism — making "the L-word" a dirty one — has probably been the centerpiece. Most politicians of the left long ago disowned the label, many of them shying even from identifying themselves as progressives. And as Nunberg notes, derogatory adjectives are routinely attached, as in "phony liberals," "well-meaning liberals," and so on. Not mentioned in his book was Agnew’s pet contribution, "radical liberals" or "radic-libs," with which even some moderate Republicans, like Senator Charles Goodell of New York in 1970, were sent packing.
Slightly more subtle has been the successful conservative gambit of turning the old New Deal era expression "class warfare" on its head, persuading many Democrats to abandon it. Instead of Democrats crying the phrase when the GOP-controlled Congress enacts tax cuts for the rich, the Republicans now regularly charge any feeble lower-income protest as an effort to divide the country by "playing the class card."
George W. Bush last year overplayed his hand in that game with his attempt to steal the elderly vote from the Democrats. He tried to do this with his idea of voluntary diversion of some Social Security payroll taxes into private-sector stock market investments, while warning future beneficiaries there would likely be no retirement for them without this. When many in the news media labeled the effort a "privatization" of the federal plan, or even "partial privatization," the Republican wordsmiths hit the panic button. They turned to calling it "personal" not "private" investment, but the seniors were already spooked.
Not even Bush’s attempt to cast the gambit as part of his dream for an "ownership society," in which the poor and the middle class could buy a piece of America (whether they could afford any savings to invest or not), was able to rescue this political fiasco. The refusal of much of the news media to parrot this display of the administration’s linguistic dexterity probably was a factor in its demise, which in turn contributed to Bush’s second-term slide in the polls. Other conservative efforts to peddle cockeyed euphemisms have been similarly transparent, including substituting "death tax" for the estate tax and, in the first Bush presidency, "revenue enhancement" for the "no new taxes" about which George W.’s father in 1988 had invited a reading of his lips.
In his book, Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, focuses on the Republicans, but they have no monopoly on sleight-of-mouth, as witness Clinton’s infamous musing on what "the meaning of ‘is’ is" or the Democrats’ knee-jerk attaching of "McCarthyism" to any mild campaign excess. We’ve also come to recognize that the phenomenon of saying one thing while meaning something else requires no party label. The military’s use of "friendly fire" and "collateral damage," meaning "Sorry, we hit the wrong target," is all too familiar. We hear these dodges again in the "war on terror" that is still being waged after bringing about "regime change" in Iraq, even as the United States "outsources" torture through a policy of "redention."
"Talking Right" is a call to the "Democrat" (a favorite conservative derision) Party to sharpen its wit and its vocabulary and, more important, to find a spokesperson who can deliver the message in plain words that connect with plain folks. For those of us who monitor the words for a living, it’s a task that demands equal-opportunity scrutiny of these magicians specializing in the sale of linguistic snake oil. Reporters can’t always avoid passing on the sleazy quote, but they can — and should — take a few words to point out the villainy.
Jules Witcover, a columnist syndicated by Tribune Media Services, is the author of 11 books on American politics and history and coauthor of five others. His most recent is a memoir entitled "The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch: Half a Century Pounding the Political Beat."