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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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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.