Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Happy Landings on the "Glide Path"
President-Elect Obama says we're "now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq." He also says we're "on a glide path for long-term sustainable economic growth." What's up with all the gliding?
Obama used the line about the "glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq" in a Dec. 1 press conference. Then he talked about the economic "glide path" when he appeared on "Meet the Press" on Dec. 7. So that's two "glide paths" in less than a week for two different policy areas. Is this a verbal tic of the soon-to-be president, akin to New York Mayor Bloomberg overusing the word unconscionable? If it is, Obama's hardly alone: a check of the Congressional Record finds nearly 300 instances of "glide path" being used on the House and Senate floors since 1985. (And that's not including all the committee hearings, which were no doubt glide-y too.)
In its literal sense, as the Visual Thesaurus explains, glide path means "the final path followed by an aircraft as it is landing." The path is usually indicated to the pilot by means of a radio beam. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations back to 1936 and suggests it might be a loan translation from German Gleitweg. Synonyms in the VT wordmap include approach path and glide slope, but neither of these have caught on in the metaphorical sense in which Obama and other politicians have used glide path.
Early extensions of glide path for things beyond airplanes tended to have to do with straightening out the federal economy, much like Obama's "Meet The Press" usage. In June 1973, when the American economy was in a precarious state, Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F. Burns was quoted by Barron's as saying that "it is possible to keep the economy from overheating, and guide it into a 'glide path' of moderate sustainable economic expansion." Two months later Leonard Silk built on the metaphor in the New York Times: "Keeping the economy on the right glide path for a soft landing will require strong nerves and quick reflexes." In financial terms, a "soft landing" is obviously preferable to that other aviation metaphor: a crash.
When the glide path metaphor is transferred to economics, I think, it doesn't quite... fly. Even if the economy is being steered to a "soft landing," it's still going down, right? Wouldn't we want to get that plane moving upwards, or at least staying level? But the literal idea of coming in for a landing gets a bit lost when the expression is used figuratively. It's sort of like that other aero-financial term in the news: bailout. If a pilot bails out of a plane, that plane is still in big trouble. (And don't get me started on golden parachutes. Why the heck would you want a parachute made of gold?)
In any case, once "glide path" was untethered from its strict aeronautical sense, it could be applied to all sorts of other happy pathways that political and financial leaders would like to chart out. Though folks like longtime Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan have often used the term for optimistic budgetary projections (e.g., "putting the nation on a glide path toward a balanced budget"), the term came to be used for the personal trajectories of individual politicians too. So in May 1991, the New York Times reported that Dick Gephardt was unlikely to seek the following year's Democratic presidential nomination because "as House majority leader, Mr. Gephardt is on a glide path to the speakership." (Gephardt didn't run in '92, but he didn't get to be Speaker either.) Over the course of the 1992 race, pundits frequently weighed in on whether Bill Clinton was on a "glide path" to his party's nomination, and then whether he could continue on that path all the way to the presidency.
Clinton hit some turbulence during that election season, of course, but he was able to straighten out and fly right. It's fitting that an agile politician like Clinton (derided by his critics as "Slick Willie") would be the one to take the "glide" metaphor to new heights — or new lows, depending on your perspective. Obama's regarded as a smooth operator too, but we'll have to wait and see just how smoothly his current "glide paths" go.