Politicians adept at reinventing language

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Welcome to the Bush ''era of responsibility,'' marked by its faith-based institutions, opportunity scholarships and exploration for energy in the ''ANWR'' -- that's Alaska to most Americans.

This comes on the heels of a Clinton administration hailed -- and criticized -- as one of the most creative with language. The Clinton White House referred to a policy shift as ''an evolution,'' talked about a centrist approach to government as ''the third way,'' coined the phrase ''don't ask, don't tell'' as a way of sidestepping the issue of homosexuals in the military and claimed until its last day that making false statements is different from lying.

Just over 50 years after George Orwell coined the phrase ''Newspeak'' in his novel ''1984'' as a synonym for government deception, rephrasing ideas and concepts to make them more acceptable remains alive and well in Washington -- and it clearly cuts across political party lines.

''The use of focus groups and survey analysis to craft political messages has encouraged just this kind of Orwellian abuse of the language,'' said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ''This is why we get politicians who don't sound like human beings, but TelePrompTer readers who have to hew to a script.''

When candidate Bush talked about ''the era of responsibility,'' he was referring to changing the tone of government after the personal scandals that enveloped the Clinton administration and led to much of the former president's semantic footwork about telling the truth.

A political party trying to initiate change comes under great pressure to alter language and create new images, Rosenstiel said. After a campaign that repeatedly criticized Clinton and the Democrats for linguistic sleight of hand, the Bush administration is finding the habit irresistible as well.

President Bush doesn't talk about funneling tax money to religious groups to provide help for the poor. He talks about providing federal aid to ''faith-based institutions'' to assist those in need.

He doesn't much talk much about drilling for oil in the Alaska wilderness but recently spoke of ''exploring for energy in the ANWR'' -- the acronym for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge used possibly just as a case of bureaucrat-speak.

President Bush doesn't use the word vouchers, the characterization first used by congressional Republicans seeking a way to shift tax money from public schools to pay private school tuitions. He talks often, however, of ''school choice'' and ''opportunity scholarships.''

Presidents' clever use of language is nothing new. Franklin Roosevelt coined ''lend-lease'' as a way to provide weapons to beleaguered England at a time in World War II when the United States officially was neutral and such activity was banned. ''Social Security'' was a clever name for a government-provided pension. Dwight Eisenhower instructed his team to call a recession a ''rolling readjustment.'' After Ronald Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative, Sen. Edward Kennedy ridiculed it by calling it ''Star Wars.''

Now Bush is proving adept at navigating the linguistic minefields.

''Bush was masterful during the campaign at blurring differences on issues with the Democrats,'' said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. Ralph Nader, the Green Party's presidential candidate, said Bush ''got away with excessive abstraction'' during the campaign.

The use of clever wording and political spin, Newspeak for reshaping the truth, so dominates the political world these days that a Ross Perot talking about ''looking under the hood'' of the nation's economy or a John McCain speaking bluntly about campaign finance aboard his ''Straight Talk Express'' tends to set off a brush fire of enthusiasm among those fed up with political Newspeak. Candor eventually has a price for candidates of course: angering those who don't agree.

Though a version of the Newspeak of fiction has survived in fact, there are dramatic differences in goals of Newspeak in Orwell's ''1984,'' with its Big Brother, Ministry of Truth and Ministry of Love, and the rhetorical footwork of Clinton's 1993 or Bush's 2001.

''This isn't an official language mandated through the press, not one that Big Brother speaks to us,'' said political communications specialist Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the current political code words. ''It's one that political consultants craft to make messages more palatable.''

The use of such phrasing often is less effective than politicians think, Rosenstiel said, because voters are good at decoding meanings over time.

''I wouldn't buy a car from people who talk like this,'' he said, ''but I'm supposed to let them spend my taxes?''

Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.

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