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August 19th, 2017

Insight

The year in quotes

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Jan. 9, 2015

Lovers of phrases that deserve preserving as summations of the year's news have reason once again to thank Carl Cannon, the tireless editor and compiler at Real Clear Politics, for giving us his annual list of defining quotes for the past year. It'll be read avidly by verbophiles from coast to coast, and there are a lot of us word-addicts. Our name is Legion, or maybe Lexicon would be the better term. (See how we're constantly being sidetracked by the unending search for the right word?)

Such summaries will never be complete until there's a Roget's Dictionary of Embarrassing Utterances, and 2014 certainly contributed its share. Here's a Whitman's Sampler of them -- some comic and others tragic, some sweet and others sour, some delicious and others just nutty, and all revealing -- some sadly so. Interspersed with a few that, believe it or not, inspire and encourage.

Hey, what a country. And what a language, American. Just don't call it English, to which it may bear a certain resemblance, but which has its own history, thank you.

Fred Shapiro, editor of "The Yale Book of Quotations" and another word nut, had to make a last-minute addition to his list of the year's most memorable quotes to make room for Earl Garner's last words: "I can't breathe!" He was the poor soul who met his end on Staten Island, essentially given the death sentence for hawking single cigarettes in violation of some minor New York ordinance. Held in a choke/neck/strangle hold by a policeman, he was dead on arrival at the nearest hospital.

Sad. For all concerned, which turned out to be many of us. His brief farewell address would be mirrored by protesters coast to coast, including some who marched to the chant of another embarrassing utterance: "What do we want? Dead cops!" Which is what they got soon enough when two unoffending police officers were gunned down without warning in Brooklyn as they sat in their patrol car. Today's column should have a black band across the top.

As much fun as they can be, words can be deadly, too. Especially when used by politicians about a deadly incident -- like New York's mayor and the president of the United States -- without considering the incendiary effect they can have.

Talk about unconsidered words, there were those uttered by Michael Brown's stepfather. That teenager was shot down by a policeman in little Ferguson, Missouri, in still contentious circumstances. Michael Brown probably never really said "Don't shoot!" to the cop, though the phrase became a mantra of protesters. His angry stepfather did, however, say: "Let's burn this ... down!" No need to fill in the expletive. And a rioting mob did indeed burn and loot before law and order could be restored.

The man would later apologize for his outburst, and it would be a poor soul indeed who could not forgive a grieving father for anything he said in the heat of the moment.

But others have no excuse for their utterances in 2014. A yellow-dog Democrat named Alan Pyke, swept away by the partisan madness called an American midterm election, and who clearly had been watching too much Fox News, sent out this tweet about the network's president: "I hope Roger Ailes dies slow, painful, and soon. ... The evil that man has done to the American tapestry is unprecedented for an individual." Adding irony to his comment, it should be noted that this Alan Pyke is an editor for something called the Center for American Progress.

If this be progress, what would be regress? And ill-tempered regress at that. Mr. Pyke did apologize later, but only kind of.

Chalk up the old-fashioned, full and unqualified apology as another casualty of the midterm follies known as congressional elections. (The usual construction for such apologies that really aren't, and that only aggravate the original offense, begins: "I'm sorry, but...." Whereupon further embarrassment ensues.)

Chris Matthews was his usual fair-and-balanced self on MSNBC this past year, as when he looked into his always cloudy crystal ball and foresaw the outcome of elections a full nine months in advance: "If only the people who voted in 2010 show up this November, you can kiss all this goodbye," he said. "You'll see the beginning of the end to ... an historic turn toward full democratic government in this country. ... The goal will be to erase not just Obama from the history books, but any evidence that someone of his background should ever think of being president. It will mean victory for the haters."

It sounds like the wish was father to the "thought" in Mr. Matthews' case. As it so often is where he's concerned. When it comes to haters, old Chris is no slouch himself. But the American electorate had other ideas in 2014 -- and how.

Not all last year's political utterances were memorable because they embarrassed. On the contrary. Some made the papers -- and turned around elections -- because they appealed to the best in us, not the worst.

For example, there was Greg Abbott, the much-admired attorney general of Texas who this year was vying to succeed the verbally awkward Rick Perry as governor of that state -- and who's been a paraplegic since he was caught under the collapsing branch of an oak tree back in 1984. His memorable, and inspiring, utterance: "I am living proof that a young man can have his life broken in half, and still rise up to be the governor of this great state...." His inauguration is scheduled for Jan. 20th in Austin.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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