Presidential Diction

by Joshua H. Liberatore

After eight years of the Bush dyslexicon, which introduced such howlers as “strategery” and “misunderestimate” into the public record, our new POTUS has quietly made his own linguistic imprint, though perhaps with less popular acclaim. In a week when swine flu, news of Arlen Specter’s bolting the Republican Party, and Chrysler’s imminent bankruptcy consume our headlines and conversations, a brief survey of POTUS’s word choices presents both a salutary distraction and an object of continuing fascination for us his anonymous editors. We begin with instances of high diction. In pitching his then just passed-and-signed $787 billion stimulus package to the National Governors Association, POTUS revived an obsolete usage of a very curious word:

So the reason I make that point is, I just want to make sure that we’re having an honest debate and presenting to the American people a fulsome accounting of what is going on in this program. You know, when I hear people say, “Well, there’s a lot of waste in this program,” well, from my perspective at least, keeping teachers in the classroom is not wasteful. From my perspective, tax cuts to 95 percent of working families is not wasteful. From my perspective, providing all of you additional resources to rebuild roads and bridges and levees and dams that will enhance the quality of life of your State, but also make it more economically competitive, that’s not wasteful. (February 23, 2009)

When’s the last time you looked up “fulsome” in your Webster’s? Come on, be honest. It’s one of those Middle English gems that somehow survives today with two very different meanings. Most of us recognize the secondary definition ( “full, ample, abundant” ) in POTUS’s description of the sort of comprehensive and patient treatment required of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which injected unprecedented amounts of capital into government programs, Federal, state, and local. But that definition had been dormant since the 16th century until it reappeared in contemporary parlance. Reflecting a rather different brand of “accounting,” the primary definition reads “disgusting or offensive, esp. because excessive or insincere,” which, if we might judge by the furious response POTUS’s stimulus efforts inspired in his toughest critics, might still enjoy some currency, even at a polite gathering of governors.

Potential double entendre aside, let’s treat another example in subtle word choice, which appeared in POTUS’s closing news conference to the recent Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The question concerned the controversial U.S. nonparticipation in the United Nations’ World Conference against Racism, boycotted by us due to its insistence on calling out the frank racism of Israeli policy toward its Palestinian residents, which though openly recognized around the world as a grave injustice, is a political tinderbox here and thus undiscussed. POTUS hedged, but not without a Latinate reminder that he knows what he is about:

So if we have a clean start, a fresh start, we’re happy to go. If you’re incorporating a previous conference that we weren’t involved with that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, then we couldn’t participate, or it wouldn’t be worth it for us to participate because we couldn’t get past that particular issue. And unfortunately, even though I think other countries made great efforts to accommodate some of our concerns and assured us that this conference would be more constructive, our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something that we just don’t believe. (April 19, 2009)

Now, don’t worry: fortunately, “imprimatur” does not carry the same troubling – to me anyway – ambiguity that the core word in its definition ( “sanction,” approval or punishment ) does, and so POTUS cannot be accused of doublespeak here. Thankfully, it originates from the concrete meaning ( “license or permission” ) it once connoted in the publishing world, as in “an approved imprint” of a particular text. Ever the lawyer, however, POTUS’s usage of “imprimatur” in a delicate response to a tricky question suggests a sophisticated diplomatic intuition that might well have rival-turned-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton searing with jealousy and awe.

At this week’s primetime news conference, POTUS concluded his response to a question targeting the Federal government’s recently acquired majority stake in major corporations with one of my favorite underused words in our language:

But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector. If you could tell me right now that when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that the autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal. (April 29, 2009)

Does POTUS share my love of this word “disabuse,” which creatively combines a vivid verb with a negative prefix to illustrate a most precise action – to undeceive someone – whose possible substitutes ( “dissuade,” “demystify,” “dismantle” ) pale in comparison? I shall never know, but that he got a laugh at the end of this utterance gives me a kernel of hope that he does.

But our Columbia and Harvard-educated POTUS is not exclusively big and fancy in his diction. One of his charms, in fact, is that he seems to appreciate the full range of modes at his disposal and indeed skillfully adapts his language to his particular context and venue with consummate ease. And though one sometimes misses the days when the previous POTUS offered useful vocabulary lessons of a simpler order – “Carlos Gutierrez is the Secretary of Commerce. Trade means commerce.” (May 23, 2008) – nobody could accuse our present POTUS of Ivy League snobbery, much less lording his prodigious vocabulary over Us the People:

The Super Bowl is one of the finest American traditions. I want to give a special shout-out to our troops overseas who are going to be watching this, because you allow not just this game to take place, but our liberties to be preserved, and we’re very grateful to you. (February 1, 2009)

Although this first, presidential instance of “shout-out” taxed our editorial protocol somewhat and had us arguing briefly over different treatment options (shout out, shoutout) – are the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary listening? – POTUS’s persuasive use of the vernacular left no one confused. And it hasn’t stopped with hyphens either:

To my outstanding Vice President, Joe Biden; to Dr. Jill Biden; a couple of outstanding public servants in their own right, please, a warm welcome for General Colin Powell and his wonderful wife, Alma; for the outstanding mayor of the New York City, Michael Bloomberg; and I’ve got to give some special props to my fellow Illinoisan, a great friend, Dick Durbin. (April 21, 2009)

We can be quite certain that the august Senator Durbin has never himself used the word “props” (short for “propers,” per Aretha Franklin) outside of the home, but I’m also confident he understood POTUS, who possesses that rare and impressive talent for projecting respect toward his elder statesmen while simultaneously welcoming them into a more youthful, hipper world, whose cachet they no doubt covet without wanting to appear so.

And in what almost appeared to be his own subtle “shout-out” to the much-maligned Sarah Palin, POTUS turned folksy in his defense of the American automobile industry:

I’m not an auto engineer; I don’t know how to create a affordable, well-designed plug-in hybrid. But I know that if the Japanese can design a affordable, well-designed hybrid, then doggone it, the American people should be able to do the same. (April 29, 2009)

A final word about a recurring metaphor, which we have treated elsewhere. In response to Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, who asked that clever question about what specifically had surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled POTUS during his first 100 days in office, POTUS returned to the “ship of state”:

This metaphor has been used before, but the ship of state is an ocean liner, it’s not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or 3 months from now, but 10 years from now or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy; that’s when health care started to become more efficient and affordable; that’s when we became serious about raising our standards in education. (April 29, 2009)

Curious readers may recall the canonical source of this phrase, familiar to high school curricula around the world. In Sophocles’ famous drama, Antigone, King Creon offered this preemptive justification for his hard-nosed governance of Thebes, which had recently suffered horrific civil war and a general spate of bad luck:

Men, after much tossing of our ship of state,

the gods have safely set things right again.

Of all the citizens I’ve summoned you,

because I know how well you showed respect

for the eternal power of the throne,

first with Laius and again with Oedipus,

once he restored our city. (185–191)

Like POTUS, Creon had assumed the throne after a particularly rough dynastic transition, a time of war and brutal division in the body politic, and he openly declared that the restoration of rule of law was, in modern parlance, his top “administrative priority”:

For I know well

our country is a ship which keeps us safe,

and only when it sails its proper course

do we make friends. These are the principles

I’ll use in order to protect our state. (214–218)

Also like POTUS in his decision to close the detention facilities at Guantánamo and ban the use of torture without exception, Creon maintained a faith in that rule of law that was so thoroughgoing and strict that he was willing to endure harsh criticism in the service of keeping the ship aright, a potentially destructive political stubbornness not lost on his son Haemon, who cautioned Creon:

For any man,

even if he’s wise, there’s nothing shameful

in learning many things, staying flexible.

You notice how in winter floods the trees

which bend before the storm preserve their twigs.

The ones who stand against it are destroyed,

root and branch. In the same way, those sailors

who keep their sails stretched tight, never easing off,

make their ship capsize – and from that point on

sail with their rowing benches all submerged.

So end your anger. Permit yourself to change. (804–814)

POTUS said something similar when he was asked about his efforts to achieve a more civil, constructive spirit of bipartisanship in the face of unparalleled need for unity and long-term vision in policymaking:

If I’m taking some of your ideas – and giving you credit for good ideas – the fact that you didn’t get a hundred percent can’t be a reason every single time to oppose my position. And if that is how bipartisanship is defined – a situation in which, basically, wherever there are philosophical differences I have to simply go along with ideas that have been rejected by the American people in a historic election – we’re probably not going to make progress. If, on the other hand, the definition is that we’re open to each other’s ideas, there are going to be some differences, the majority will probably be determinative when it comes to resolving just hard-core differences that we can’t resolve, but there’s a whole host of other areas where we can work together, then I think we can make progress. (April 29, 2009)

For now, let us take POTUS at his word and hope that he can be as flexible and nimble in his governance as he has proven in his colorful diction.

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One Response to Presidential Diction

  1. Claudia Liberatore says:

    Thank you for not only elevating my perception of POTUS’s diction, but for inspiring my thoughts on life. I chuckle to envision your editing team as you consider your all of the choices.

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