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Talking Politics

What are they really saying?

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Safire's Political Dictionary

by William Safire

Oxford, 896 pp., $22.95

Mr. William Safire would have made--indeed he does make, in another of his incarnations--a highly serviceable lexicographer. But he would have chafed under Dr. Johnson's humble self-definition of the calling as that of "a harmless drudge." Drudge maybe; harmless never. There must needs be a sting, as in this most seemingly innocuous and topical of derivations and definitions:

Candidate ... The word comes from the Latin candidatus, wearer of a white toga, which the Roman office-seekers always wore as a symbol of purity. The same root gave the language candor and incandescence, qualities that candidates occasionally have.

One admires the dryness here, which comes partly from Safire's appreciation of the antiquity of political discourse and, indeed, of cliche:

Most of the seemingly "new" language is surprisingly old: Henry IV's chicken in every pot, Al Smith's cooing doves and Thomas Jefferson's war hawk accusation, Henry Clay's struggle against the can't win technique, Alf Landon's borrowing of New Frontier from Henry Wallace, Teddy Roosevelt's blast at the lunatic fringe ...

And indeed, Aristotle's political animal. Safire himself is so politicized a beast that he helped begin the vogue for attaching the "-gate" suffix to any Washington scandal, in the conscious hope that over time the habit would make Watergate appear just one offense among many. In his entry on the subject, he rather modestly downplays his own role in this euphemizing of Richard Nixon.

One of the pleasures of toying with dictionaries is the discovery--akin to the delight of the now-vanished index-card system in a library--of the useful reference for which one was not looking. Had I not taken care to pursue my old anti-Safire vendetta all the way to -gate construction on page 275, I would not have discovered that Elbridge Gerry's name was pronounced with a hard "g" and that he's probably been unfairly saddled with the etymology of the term "gerrymander."

Thus you may want to look up the deeper meaning of the phrase inside baseball, and then find yourself musing on the subsequent entry for inside the Beltway, and perhaps be amazed to find, as I was, that this expression was partly launched by Vice President Bush on Meet the Press in 1984. (He employed it in its original populist sense, to denote a topic that was of no interest to the broad masses, and thus additionally helped to establish it as a term used largely by Washington elitists who claim to know what it is that the Great Unwashed really do and do not care about.)

Great Unwashed itself, I was amused to discover, entered our language as a manifestation of defiant pride rather than as a piece of insulting condescension: It didn't even go through the metamorphosis of words--such as "Tory," "suffragette," and "Impressionist"--that originated as insults and were then adopted ironically by their targets.

Occasionally Safire misses a small trick. A long entry for the suffix ism, cautioning us against the generalizations that can result from too lavish a use of it, makes some sound anti-ism observations, but neglects to stress how useful these three letters can be and forgets just how wrong the British Foreign Office got it by stating complacently, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, that "all the isms are now wasms."

On the other hand, his long discussion of the origin of the term Islamofascism is as exhaustive as one could wish, combining a good deal of nuance with some old-fashioned digging and research (the first major usage of the word coming from the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson) and allowing room for both linguistic and hermeneutic maneuver. I should perhaps add that I am myself cited in this very entry, and that every wrinkle of what I had attempted to convey is encapsulated in the relevant paragraph. It's extremely unusual for one to be able to say that.

Still, and given the reverence for history that is one of his stronger points, Safire can sometimes be rather slapdash. A very long discussion of the key phrase Cold War, where he divides the honors of the coinage between Herbert Bayard Swope, editor and speechwriter for Bernard Baruch, and Walter Lippmann, fails entirely to notice that George Orwell probably first employed the expression in a short essay on nuclear weapons in 1946.

As against that, Safire does seem to confirm what I have long feared; namely that it was Joseph Goebbels from whom Winston Churchill annexed the potent image of the Iron Curtain. The idea of passing the torch is probably as old as the Greeks, but it seems peculiar to spend so much time and space on it without citing Sir Henry Newbolt's poem, "Vitai Lampada." The authorship of the celebrated Barry Goldwater phrases about extremism in the defense of liberty and moderation in the pursuit of justice may well have been "attributed to speechwriter Karl Hess" but is much more likely to stand to the credit of Professor Harry Jaffa.

(Safire redeems himself here, though, by quoting Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"--"Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists"--which was written a year earlier, and wondering how things might have been different if Goldwater had cited that.)

Sometimes the keyword is a little buried. If I wanted to look up "jugular instinct" I would probably flap through to "J" instead of consulting under instinct for the jugular. However, once I had got there I was rewarded, after various sanguinary and carnivorous reflections on the jugular and, indeed, the carotid, by the information that Henry Kissinger thought that James Schlesinger was a mere details man with "an instinct for the capillaries." Worth noting and, unlike other Kissinger attributions such as power being aphrodisiac, arguably original.

Safire's job is to record and chart usage and not--as he sometimes does in his "On Language" column in the New York Times--to try and put stale and stupid expressions out of business or out of circulation. However, he does have a very extended and very amusing "go" at the stale word watershed, and at the incredible number of ways in which it can be folded into a mixed or meaningless metaphor. He gallantly takes the opportunity here to bow to the shade of the late Meg Greenfield, who made war on the word even in the days of Vietnam (where "watersheds" sometimes turned up "at the end of the tunnel").

But for the most part, he is patient with the boilerplate of quotidian political speech, and goes to the trouble of discovering, say, who gave birth and currency to the mantra about waste, fraud and abuse in the budgetary system. (Should you care, it was probably by Joseph Califano out of Jimmy Carter. That sounds about right.)

A good dictionary can often do duty, as in the above instances, for an encyclopedia. Safire doesn't always rise to this standard. Under WASP, for example, we find: "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: an ethnic group." Surely the chief interest of this acronymous word (coined by E. Digby Baltzell in 1962) lies precisely in the fact that it does not merely denote ethnicity. Apart from its redundancies--after all, there are no JASPS or BASPS on the scene, and the P is hardly necessary--nobody would ever describe the late George Wallace as a WASP. Whereas the late William Buckley Jr.--who was both Irish and Catholic by provenance--had something quintessentially, shall we say, WASP-ish about him. It's a term of class and status, in other words, and needs a touch more work and subtlety than it gets here. In the same breath, or at least in a closely related one, I note sadly that Safire repeats the common error of describing the Irish Whig Edmund Burke as an English Conservative.

For value added, above and before the citations themselves, he gives us a term-by-term terminological prologue on presidential phrase-making. I had forgotten Carter's use of moral equivalent of war (rendered by Safire as MEOW) and Bush senior's like ugly on an ape, while to review the torrent of lingo that was unleashed by Watergate is to feel something like reverence for the good fortune that was brought us by the exposure of that third-rate burglary.

At the end of each section, Safire appends a terse summary of "coinages," "descriptions," and "attacks." Thus for Ronald Reagan the third category in its entirety reads, somehow oddly, amen corner, amiable dunce, October surprise, sleaze factor. Where did Iran-contra go? These are details, but then nobody should know better than William Safire, who even knows what the meaning of is is, that the details are what it's in.

Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography.