“Verbage: The Republican War on Words”
Reprinted from The New Yorker. October 13, 2008. By James Wood.
In recent elections, the Republican hate word has been “liberal,” or “Massachusetts,” or “Gore.” In this election, it has increasingly been “words.” Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has “authored” two books (to use Sarah Palin’s verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.” The once bipartisan campaign adviser Dick Morris and his wife and co-writer, Eileen McGann, argue that the McCain camp, in true Rovian fashion, is “using the Democrat’s articulateness against him” (along with his education, his popularity, his intelligence, his wife—pretty much everything but his height, though it may come to that). John McCain’s threatened cancellation of the first Presidential debate was the ultimate defiance, by action, of words; sure enough, afterward conservatives manfully disdained Barack Obama’s “book knowledge.” To have seen the mountains of Waziristan with one’s own eyes—that is everything.
Doesn’t this reflect a deep suspicion of language itself? It’s as if Republican practitioners saw words the way Captain Ahab saw “all visible objects”—as “pasteboard masks,” concealing acts and deeds and things—and, like Ahab, were bent on striking through those masks. The Melvillean atmosphere may not be accidental, since, beyond the familiar American anti-intellectualism—to work with words is not to work at all—there’s a residual Puritanism. The letter killeth, as St. Paul has it, but the spirit giveth life. (In that first debate, McCain twice charged his opponent with the misdeed of “parsing words.”) In this vision, there is something Pharisaical about words. They confuse, they corrupt; they get in the way of Jesus.
But we all need words, and both campaigns wrestle every day over them. Words are up for grabs: just follow the lipstick traces. For days, the McCain camp accused Obama of likening Governor Palin to a pig, because he likened a retooled political message to a pig with lipstick. Eventually, McCain (who had previously described Senator Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan as a pig with lipstick) was forced to fudge. No, he conceded, Senator Obama had not called Governor Palin a pig, “but I know he chooses his words carefully, and it was the wrong thing to say.” This was instructive, not least because it sounded like implicit praise: maybe I don’t choose my words very carefully, but he does, so he should have chosen them more carefully.
Meanwhile, the campaign that claims to loathe “just words” has proved expert at their manipulation, from reversals of policy to the outright lies of some of its attack ads (“comprehensive sex education”) and the subtle racial innuendo of a phrase like “how disrespectful” (used to accuse Obama of making uppity attacks on Palin). Karl Rove—along with predecessors like Lee Atwater and protégés like Steve Schmidt—long ago showed the Republicans that language is slippery, fluid, a river into which you can dump anything at all as long as your opponent is the one downstream. And, to be fair, those who affect to despise words have been more skillful than their opponents not just at amoral manipulation but at the creation of what Orwell called “a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.” Pit bulls and lipstick stuck for good reason.
Or take McCain’s slogan “The Original Maverick,” now attached to many of the campaign’s ads. It cynically stipulates that politics is just merchandise, by sounding as close to a logo or a brand name as possible. But it also understands that consumers trust brands that sound like “quality.” Thus “Original,” which has the reassuring solidity of something like “Serving Americans of discernment since 1851,” or, indeed, “Levi’s 501: Original Jeans.” In such formulations, “Original” means eccentric, strange, unusual, and also first, best, belatedly copied by others. Better still, the phrase sounds like the tagline from a movie poster; not for nothing has McCain taken to announcing that “change is coming soon, to a district near you.”
If Obama is the letter (words, fancy diplomas, “authored” books), then the latest representative of the spirit is Sarah Palin. Literary theorists used to say that their most abstruse prose was “writing the difficulty”—that the sentences were tortuous because there was no briskly commonsensical way of representing a complex issue. Sarah Palin, alas, talks the difficulty. She may claim, as she did in last Thursday’s Vice-Presidential debate, that “Americans are cravin’ that straight talk,” but they are sure not going to get it from the Governor—not with her peculiar habit of speaking only half a sentence and then moving on to another for spoliation, that strange, ghostly drifting through the haziest phrases, as if she were cruelly condemned to search endlessly for her linguistic home: “I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.” And words do matter, after all: it matters that our Vice-Presidential candidate says, as she did to Gwen Ifill, that “nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all-end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.”
Hearing her being interviewed by Sean Hannity, on Fox News, almost made one wish for a Republican victory in November, so that her bizarre locutions might be available a bit longer to delve into. At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow. The most revealing moment happened earlier, when she was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.