STICKS & STONES, BONES, AND WORDS
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 12 December 2008
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Well in theory the ol’ grade school playground retort to relentless teasing and taunts may be true but not so in the nasty, rough and tumble sport of politics—American style. Now that the presidential election, congressional runoffs, and shameless sore loser recounts are history, and President-elect Obama with his growing ‘Team of Change’ lay in engaged waiting, and while all’s relatively quiet on the western front, it’s as good a time as any to comment on words and politics. But just a moment before zeroing in on words…
It’s only “relatively quiet” because the foul-mouthed, pompous governor of Illinois, Democrat, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested Tuesday on federal corruption charges. Interestingly enough, the heinous scandal involves a “pay to play” scheme to fill the vacant Senate seat of our president-elect. Hmmm. And, just when we thought corruption couldn’t get any better. Honest Abe must be beside himself with disgust. At this point, the first shoe of corruption to drop—as it always is—involves money and lots of it. Everybody knows when you have power always fulfill the greed need first. Now Vegas odds makers—who know a lot about dirty money—are taking bets on how long it will be before the other shoe of corruption—dirty sex—drops into the picture. Come on, how could it be a good, raunchy scandal without money and sex? The national spotlight is illuminating Illinois and the high beam is tracking the scurrying rats seeking “cover”—shelter and tabloid. For good “cover” is simply a matter of perspective—it depends whether you lie or lay; or both. Need gender of the respective rats be mentioned?—in some states, perhaps, but not in the “Land of Lincoln.” You better believe Leno, Letterman, Miller, O’Brien and scores of other entertainers, commentators, cartoonists, and political attack dogs are thanking Santa for an early Christmas present—and to date only a curiosity-arousing peek is possible through the small corner of torn wrapping paper. But that small tear will change and quickly as eager big boys and girls rip and tear to expose all the shenanigans—before Christmas morning. Forthcoming words—written or spoken—from “contestants,” “persons of interest,” and “spectators” are sure to be carefully chosen and interesting if not entertaining. Pay attention, this is going to be good and likely full of surprises. Words.
Words—the weapons of choice for the refined and sophisticated on the battlefield of statesmen—can be far more hurtful and damaging than any sticks and stones. Regardless of how cunningly sly or ruthlessly inflicted, words do not physically bruise, cut, or break bones. No sir, words are far more potent—crushing egos and spirits, and destroying reputations while leaving enduring emotional scars and sometimes a pile of smoldering remains. True or false, words can take down the most invincible appearing of candidates. Yes, words are the perfect arm of choice for battle in the political arena—where beaming toothpaste, white strips, bleach, and Efferdent grins, all so important for winning votes, guise biting rhetoric. And, make no mistake, politicians—the generals in this war, campaign managers, lawyers, media, and gossips reign supreme as masters of the word. Caution! The most innocent of words can be twisted, turned, misinterpreted, rearranged, and changed to shape behavior—and influence voters. Words.
One would think with today’s broad spectrum of media outlets and a more educated, informed public (a false assumption) that pulling off twists of language—of words—would be nearly impossible. But such is not the case—far from it. During our most recent presidential race, with Election Day barely six weeks old, the Obama/Biden campaign did not have to spend any time or a single penny conjuring up word attacks to use against McCain/Palin. Nope, mainstream media—blatantly supporting the Democratic ticket—took care of that bit of business for them. The most obvious example was manipulating words to smear the credibility of vice-president nominee, Governor Sarah Palin. Though Palin, to the chagrin of her haters, did not embarrass herself during the VP debate, interviews, or when stumping on the trail, the absence of miscues did not preclude the enemy from rephrasing or framing her words out of context to make her appear dimwitted and unqualified for high office. Comedian Tina Fey’s uncanny look-alike appearance and dead-ringer caricature of Palin on Saturday Night Live proved, well, deadly effective embedding sentiments of serious doubt in the public. Fey, who more than blurred—she practically erased the line between reality and make-believe in the name of comic parody, spoofed Palin’s education and sophistication—arguably more successfully than the attacks launched by her political opponents. The most obvious instance being when, during one interview, Palin made comment of Alaska’s proximity to Russia and correctly stated that it was possible to see Russia from Alaskan soil. But that did not prevent Fey from portraying Palin as a giddy even naïve airhead proclaiming: “I can see Russia from my house.” Yes, it was funny and intended to be light-hearted entertainment. Or was it? Doubtful. The physical caricature and goofy line were meant to harm—and did they ever. The scene stuck with a cross-section of the populace and particularly with our nation’s deepest thinkers—those who get their news from Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, National Enquirer, MAD magazine, backs of cereal boxes, and third hopper from the left in the “relief room” at work. Fey’s skit proved more successful than the Obama faithful could have dreamed, hoped, or even planned. Post-election interviews revealed voters actually thought Palin said she could see Russia from her house. More unbelievable is anyone entrusted with the privilege and power to cast a vote could be so harebrained to believe it. Oh, yes, the power of words. Sadly, Fey’s work set the stage for misspeaks by other candidates being attributed to Governor Palin. To wit, President-elect Obama’s comment on the campaign trail that he had “…been in 57 states with one left to go…” Huh? Thanks to an infatuated, love-struck press Obama got a pass and the gaffe was incorrectly and unfairly attributed to Palin. Words.
The Obama machine—campaign staff but largely the media—apparently learned a little something from the 1988 presidential contest when Republican, George H. W. Bush (41), defeated his Democrat opponent, Michael Dukakis. Surely someone was paying attention 20 years ago and picked up on the power of words and brilliant word tactic attributed to Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater (1951-1991)—the Bush campaign manager. Learning Bush and Dukakis were members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Atwater encouraged Bush to immediately (and quietly) resign his membership and turn in his card. As soon as Bush was no longer officially associated with the ACLU, Atwater launched his ambush. Assuming the majority of Americans did not know much about the ACLU, Dukakis was accused of being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU”—implying an association with Communism and all things un-American (though the ACLU purports a mission to the contrary). Atwater’s instincts and assumptions proved accurate and the ploy worked. Though Dukakis defended his membership—even during one of the debates—to include pointing out that Bush too had, until recently, been a member of the ACLU did not matter. The damage was done. It may not have been the deciding factor in the Bush victory but it certainly did not help Dukakis. Words.
Perhaps one of the cleverest uses of words in American politics that never happened—officially—goes back nearly 60 years. In 1950 the Democratic race for a U.S. Senate seat representing the state of Florida was tight. The candidates battling for the coveted office were George Smathers (1913-2007) and Claude Pepper (1900-1989). Smathers was a practicing lawyer before serving as a U.S. Marine during WWII and seeing aerial combat action in the South Pacific. After the war, having completed three years of service, he left the Corps as a major. Pepper was likewise a lawyer and politically active in the state of Florida serving as a U. S. Senator before, during, and after WWII. Smathers, now battle-hardened—literally, challenged for the Senate seat at the urging of President Truman who wanted his political enemy, Pepper, out of office. Though, at the time of the campaign, both men were anti-Communist, it did not stop Smathers from capitalizing on Pepper’s name and tagging him with the unbecoming moniker, “Red”—quite effective since during the 1940s Pepper was pro-Soviet and, after meeting the Soviet leader in 1945, told America that Stalin was a man they could trust. What is now recorded as political lore, Smathers delivered a campaign speech to his uneducated constituents counting on their ignorance to not understand big words and leap to false conclusions based on the context, tone of voice, and body language used to deliver those words. In his fabled oration, Smathers accused his incumbent foe of the following indiscretions: That Pepper’s sister was a “thespian” living in New York; that Pepper practiced “nepotism” with his sister-in-law; that Pepper was a shameless “extrovert” and before marriage regularly practiced “celibacy;” that Pepper’s brother was a “homosapien;” and that Pepper was once known to have “matriculated” with young coeds. Whether the speech was actually delivered or not—and Smathers said for the record it was not—is moot. It is certainly plausible that something along the lines of the content was discreetly circulated throughout the constituency—counting on ignorance and plain old-fashioned gossip. It did not matter that the “condemning” words of Pepper’s “questionable” family and own “deviant” behavior were all completely innocent and could be said of practically anyone. What mattered then and still does today is the first and lasting impression on the public. Facts though interesting are irrelevant. Smathers won the election by some 60,000 votes. Maybe history would have been different had Pepper, in defense, staked claim to the title “Doctor”—and billed himself as “Dr. Pepper”—not only good at 10, 2, and 4 like the popular soft drink but good for Florida and the country. Who knows? Words.
One can’t help but wonder if the Obama camp had not had the luxury of mainstream media in their hip pocket (and every other pocket) if the campaign manager would have resorted to an Atwater or Smathers-like strategy to discredit McCain. As a lawyer and older candidate, McCain would have been an easy target for some innocent—though mean-spirited—“allegations,” all of which would have been irrefutably true. The defense would have had to resort to clarifying definitions and correcting the context—with their efforts likely proving to be wasted time and breath—and a huge distraction away from far more important campaign business. A few potentially “damaging slurs” that come to mind include: accusing the Senator of having once been a “solicitor” in Arizona; that the Senator’s family tree was littered with “primogenitors” and he was destined to be one himself; and certified documents, on public record mind you, prove he had been a “sexagenarian”—for ten years. Possibly most troublesome, his attackers could have charged that recently, while holding his distinguished Senate seat and unknown to his wife, he regularly had passionate “discourse”—with women—and men—and maybe even pages in his Capitol Hill office. Just shameful! Can you imagine the hysteria these accusations of “misbehavior” would have caused among some in our country—despite any defense or explanation offered by McCain or a sympathetic media. Many (our previously cited deep thinkers among them), without so much as taking the time to turn to a dictionary or objectively listening to retort, would assume the worst and hear nothing else. Words.
Senator John McCain knows something about sticks and stones breaking bones—he’s “been there done that”—his body reflects five years experience. He also knows words—his own—can make the bone breaking even worse. His torture while captive in North Vietnam only intensified when he spoke words refusing special treatment and early release just because his father was an admiral. Yes, the then young naval aviator and now senior statesman from Arizona knows firsthand sticks, stones, and words can break bones—literally and figuratively. During his run for the presidency, Senator McCain, from the onset, committed to a gentlemanly duel. Sticks and stones (and whittling knives) were, of course, not an option and he also—very “un-politician-like”—disarmed himself by removing words from the arsenal—though he had plenty of ripe ones at his disposal to discredit his opponents—particularly against the man who defeated him for the Oval Office. The election’s outcome may have been much different had McCain aggressively exploited words—e.g. Barak Hussein Obama, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, radicals, terrorists, Muslims, etc.—for his cause. Apparently Lee Atwater only whispered his heavenly advice—he should have shouted. Though McCain’s campaign strategy was admirable in principle, he may have been better served to forego the less than gentlemanly, direct attack and let creative, highly skilled word surgeons implant an innocent albeit misleading word or two in the public arena—early in the campaign—and let nature take its course. When folks start yakking there’s no predicting what might happen. A couple of iterations of a juicy rumor and before you know it the original tale is unrecognizable—the intent; exactly. We’ll never know. Words.
Words, written or spoken, can be powerful—to make history and change history. But it’s the spoken word—using volume, inflection, tone of voice, accent, rhythm, hesitations, and pauses coupled with context, facial expressions, body language, and that intangible thing called “charisma”—delivered with confidence that can enthrall and move a nation. President-elect Obama, like many great orators and politicians throughout history, proved it. His use of “Change,” “Yes We Can,” and a few other attention-getters in a consistent, organized pattern relaxed and, in a sense, hypnotized a “wanting to believe and be led public” into a flock of unquestioning faithful ready to perform as instructed. Those not spellbound and not the least bit amused—then or now, await Inauguration Day to see how long it will be before the Hypnotist-in-Chief’s finger-snap awakens his “sleepers.” Who knows, it may prove to be a long wait. But there is a certainty—in 2012 new words, campaign strategies, media, and gossip mills will influence voters. You can bet the Republicans are already carefully listening, taking copious notes, and “word-smithing” a plan of attack. Count on it. Stand by. Words.