Dept. of Word Lists

Safire's Political Words, Part 1

To supplement our two-part interview with William Safire about the new edition of Safire's Political Dictionary, we've provided extended excerpts from the dictionary entries that came up in the course of our wide-ranging discussion. If you want to know the difference between an old pro and a curmudgeon, read on!

-bashing: Excessive criticism; a combining form to derogate rhetorical attacks on a person, group, or principle. The combining forms of -bashing and -basher began in Britain. Bash, the eighteenth-century verb that led to these forms, may be onomatopoeic (a word that imitates a sound) or a blend of bang and smash. British lexicographer Eric Partridge noted the nineteenth-century use of basher for a boxer or professional criminal. By 1940, the peeling of potatoes was known as spud-bashing. A driving force behind this counterattacking form is The Economist, a London weekly. In 1975, this publication coined Commie-basher for Jacques Chirac, the French Gaullist leader, and Senator Henry Jackson was labeled "a veteran Russia-basher." Recent use in the United States has hit upon numerous objects of vituperation, from male-bashing to Japan-bashing.

The government, of course, is a favorite target of the bashers. When the Reagan Administration blamed the Federal Reserve Board for rising interest rates, The Wall Street Journal reported that "Reagan aides hope their 'Fed-bashing' will pressure the central bank to ease its tight grip on the nation's credit."

curmudgeon: A likeably irascible old man. In politics, a cantankerous, outspoken older politician with a talent for invective. FDR's Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, earned the title "The Old Curmudgeon." New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was often identified as a curmudgeon, but the word still evokes memories of "Harold the Ick." Among his memorable blasts, he tagged Wendell Willkie as "the simple, barefoot boy from Wall Street," and is sometimes credited (inaccurately) with labeling Thomas E. Dewey as "the little man on the wedding cake"; Alfred Landon was "a strong but silenced man." When Huey Long called Ickes "the Chicago Chinch-Bug," Ickes replied, "The trouble with Senator Long is that he is suffering from halitosis of the intellect. That's presuming Senator Long has an intellect." He denounced opponents of academic freedom as "intellectual Dillingers," proponents of the Liberty League as "vestal virgins," and Governor Talmadge of Georgia as "His Chain Gang Excellency." He intended to deliver a speech about Rep. Martin Dies, head of the House Un-American Activities Committee, entitled "A Case of Loaded Dies," but Roosevelt restrained him.

A curmudgeon may expect to be attacked in kind. Ickes was described as "the New Deal blackjack squad," "blunderbuss Ickes," and (by House Speaker Joe Martin) "Comrade Harold L. Ickes, Overlord of the Interior and Commissar of the P.W.A."

The definition of curmudgeon in most dictionaries is "cantankerous, bad-tempered"; in Samuel Johnson's dictionary it is "churlish, avaricious" (Johnson, in a famous etymological mistake, thought it came from the French for "unknown correspondent," somehow rooted in coeur m├ęchant, "wicked heart"). That sense of "grasping" does not apply in politics; "irascible" and "cantankerous" are the right adjectives. The curmudgeon is liked and his irascibility admired because he is a throwback to the days when politicians had fewer advisers telling them to soften their words.

In 1969, Life magazine columnist Hugh Sidey referred to publisher John Knight, then seventy-five, as "an old curmudgeon." Knight looked up the definition in the third edition of Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary and was distressed to see "a miser; niggard; churl" among other disparagements. Sidey quickly wrote one of Knight's perturbed associates: "Word meanings are fluid, like history. Dictionaries are often inaccurate guides to the moment. William Safire's book, The New Language of Politics, ... says 'Curmudgeon—a likeably irascible old man.' That is precisely how I feel about Mr. Knight. I believe he is a splendid journalist, a delightful skeptic, a wonderful human being. Nothing you wrote changes my opinion of this old curmudgeon." Knight replied to Sidey, "I guess that calls for a drink," and wrote this author: "I have had a lot of fun with being called a 'curmudgeon' but I much prefer your definition to the one in Webster's."

Nixon Doctrine: A foreign policy that sought to maintain U.S. involvement in the affairs of the world, in a way that required allies to bear the manpower burden of their own defense. In his November 3, 1969, "Silent Majority" speech, President Nixon first used the phrase publicly: "Let me briefly explain what has been described as the Nixon Doctrine." (Somewhat self-conscious about using the phrase with his name in it, he toned it down with "what has been described as." Needless to say, he wanted it described exactly that way. It had been called the "Guam doctrine," because it had been issued on background on that island, but as H.R. Haldeman pointed out to me, "nobody elected Guam.")

These were the three principles of the doctrine set forth in that speech:

First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments. Second, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.

When it comes to doctrines, one does not have to be doctrinaire. At a meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room in 1970, as U.S. troops in Vietnam made a foray into Cambodia, the author asked Henry Kissinger, "Doesn't this fly in the face of the Nixon Doctrine?" The National Security Adviser replied heatedly: "We wrote the goddam Doctrine, we can change it!"

The doctrine first presented at Guam was in a "backgrounder," not for specific attribution, and Nixon could not correctly say he had "announced" it there. The operative verb, appropriate for doctrines generally, is enunciated.

old pro: One richly experienced in politics, regardless of age; the highest accolade among professionals. Not to be confused with party elders, old pros may be found among: (1) officeholders who "know the ropes" and "where the bodies are buried"; (2) self-proclaimed "amateurs," who can be depended upon to run citizens' movements in a sound professional manner every few years; (3) party professionals adept at a "nose count" who can be distinguished from the "three h's" who populate campaign headquarters—hack, henchman, and hanger-on.

Old pros on different sides of the political fence know of one another, and are sometimes acquainted, but seldom know one another well. This contrasts with opposition-party elected officials, who come to know and often like one another because of their daily contact and need for striking compromises. To them, Shakespeare's words about lawyers apply: "Adversaries ... in law strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends."

Professional campaign managers, however, often make it a point to honor their respected foes by not socializing with them. Julius C. C. Edelstein, New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner's executive assistant and campaign planner, once explained why he never met John A. Wells, an eminent attorney who often managed major Republican campaigns in New York. Edelstein told the author a story about a college student in Chicago in the 1920s:

The student had made contact with a gang of mobsters and asked if he could observe some of their activities for his course in criminology. The mobsters were strangely delighted by the prospect of a "perfesser" studying their habits, and they took him under their wing. One day the student inquired why the gang had to import out-of-state torpedoes to kill off rival hoodlums. Didn't the gang have its own able trigger men?
The gangsters explained that the local hoodlums, in all the rival gangs, had grown up together in the same neighborhood. When one was assigned to rub out another, he just couldn't pull the trigger—friendship and sentiment stood in the way. So they had to hire guns from out of town to do the job that only a stranger could do.
Now, I wouldn't say that campaign managers are quite like torpedoes. But a man who manages a political campaign is in the hottest end of politics, and he is often called on to strike hard for his candidate with no thought of personal consideration.

Edelstein added: "That's why Jack Wells and I are not likely to meet." They never did.

silent majority: The remarkable legion of the unremarked, whose individual opinions are not colorful or different enough to make news, but whose collective opinion, when crystallized, can make history.

The voices of the Vietnam dissenters were relatively muted during the first nine months of the Nixon presidency, but in October 1969 an anti-war "moratorium" was organized, featuring a march on Washington, D.C., with more strident demonstrations planned the following month.

In the midst of this rebirth of demonstrations, President Nixon made a televised address, in prime time, to counter the mounting dissent. The November 3 "silent majority" speech had a strong effect on public opinion, buying time for his "Vietnamization" program. The anti-war demonstrations did not make important news again until the incursion into neighboring Cambodia six months later.

"If a vocal minority," the President warned, "however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society. Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism. And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support."

Nixon, who wrote this speech with no help from his speechwriters, was not consciously "making a phrase." The words were not capitalized, nor was the phrase repeated, but it did fill a need for a description of all the people who were not demonstrating, and was promptly taken up by the media.

Though the phrase officially came into the political language on November 3, 1969, it had of course been used previously, and Nixon had used the thought many times. In a radio speech during the primary campaign, on May 16, 1968, he referred to "the silent center, the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly. ... We must remember that all the center is not silent, and all who are silent are not center. But a great many 'quiet Americans' have become committed to answers to social problems that preserve personal freedom."

John F. Kennedy wrote in Profiles in Courage in 1956: "They were not all right or all conservatives or all liberals. Some of them may have been representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority, but most of them were not."

Previous usage of almost any famous phrase can be found. In Plautus' Trinummus, ad plures penetrare—"to join the great majority"—is used as a euphemism for dying, similar to the modern passed away. The September 1874 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine had an article entitled "The Silent Majority" about burial customs around the world. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan spoke on Dec. 9, 1902, of "great captains on both sides of our Civil War [who] have long ago passed over to the silent majority, leaving the memory of their splendid courage."

Vice President Spiro Agnew used the phrase in its non-lugubrious sense on May 9, 1969: "It is time for America's silent majority to stand up for its rights, and let us remember the American majority includes every minority. America's silent majority is bewildered by irrational protest ..." During that spring of 1969, the journalist Theodore White reflected on the paradoxes that marked the previous election year: "Never have America's leading cultural media, its university thinkers, its influence makers been more intrigued by experiment and change; but in no election have the mute masses more completely separated themselves from such leadership and thinking. Mr. Nixon's problem is to interpret what the silent people think, and govern the country against the grain of what its more important thinkers think."

Six months later, as White predicted, Nixon rallied "the silent majority." In the late seventies the phrase carried the opprobrium generally accorded Nixon-Agnew utterances, but its users were careful to deride the inside-the-beltway phrasemakers rather than the group described. In 1993, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, gave his opinion to The Boston Globe about the Clinton tax plans: "Now that silent majority is about to scream and reject the tax increases. These people think they've already sacrificed and can't do it anymore."

This article is adapted from Safire's Political Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. © 2008 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
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Part one of our interview with pundit/lexicographer William Safire.
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