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Jewish World Review / June 18, 1998 / 24 Sivan, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Adventures in poli-speke

I WAS SORRY TO HEAR about the death of Harry Stanley, who died in the Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., at the age of 100 --- just as a promising political career was opening for someone with his considerable talent for doublespeak.

You may have seen Harry Stanley on one of the variety shows years ago; he was an old vaudevillian who appeared with pince-nez and distinguished mien. He would start out delivering a dull but respectable speech on some elevated topic ("The Role of Foreign Policy in the Life of the Nation") and then slowly, by almost undetectable degrees, proceed to grand perorations like this one:

"However, I for one feel that all the basic and sadum tortumise, all the professional getesimus and torum kimafly, despite its framatical linguistations, will precipitously aggregate so that peace shall reign. I want to make that perfectly clear."

The man was an Al Gore ahead of his time, a world champion of doublespeak when it was a subtle joke rather than the lingua franca of politics. A phrase like Controlling Legal Authority would have fit unobtrusively into his act.

The challenge, as with some of the Nineties' leading statesmen, was to see how long he could go before it became clear to even the dimmest member of the audience that he was spouting word salad. The rhythm of Harry Stanley's vaguely latinate vocabulary was so perfect that it sounded as if he should be making sense.

To quote his obit in the New York Times, "when he got wound up, it took a while before it became apparent that nobody had the foggiest idea what he was talking about." After a time, as the joke grew broader and broader, the puzzled expressions in the crowd would turn to scattered titters, and the whole audience would be smiling at an oration that was 99.44 percent unintelligible, much like tax law or the latest research paper in pure educantion.

Only then would "Doctor" Stanley give the game away, explaining in the most serious, oh-so-sober tones: "For those of you who missed my introduction, I'm Professor Harry Stanley, Harvard '39, Rutgers, nothing."

The man clearly missed his time (now) and place (Washington). Bureaucratic doublespeak supplanted English as the national language at about the time POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS replaced the president, first lady, and Supreme Court of the United States. Or as David Goldstein of the Knight Ridder papers noted awhile back in a story out of Washington, nominees to high office can now be routinely Borked or Hatched by smear artists, aka oppo guys. Ask for the ISTEA in Washington, and somebody may hand you a transportation budget.

Bob Dole, who spoke poli-speke like a Senate majority leader, used to justify some of his more enigmatic utterances by saying he was only using a wedge issue to influence swing voters like soccer moms and suburban-values Democrats.

Just as English is an amalgam of other tongues, so poli-speke is heavily influenced by the brittle lingo of pollsters, pols, bureaucrats and speechwriters. This burgeoning language, or non-language, can be fully understood only by adepts inside the Beltway. For fluency in polispeak comes only with an understanding of The Process, a term pronounced as if it were capitalized, like God.

Harry Stanley must have felt right at home in his declining years at the Actors Home, where he spoke regularly. On first hearing him, it is said, new members of the staff would figure he was just another old guy who had lost his mind, while new residents of the home would wonder if they'd lost theirs.

I can understand both reactions, having experienced much the same doubts when watching C-SPAN in the middle of the night at the low ebb of the caffeine cycle. It takes a while and an alert mind to decide whether the problem is you or the politician, though this does not exclude the possibility that it's both. Once you begin to understand the jargon or, infinitely worse, speak it, all is lost, for nothing is more corrupting than corrupt language.

You can tell a lot about where a country is heading by noticing where the language is. And politics is scarcely the only aspect of the culture in which vaguely impressive words now substitute for thought. It seems to be happening everywhere.

Out in Silicon valley, the folks who still have real language have taken to playing something called Buzzword Bingo. It's a game in which standard terms from today's meaningless execuspeak are assembled on a bingo-like card, and workers solemnly check off each one when visiting execs commit them.

The terms are depressingly familiar by now: incent, proactive, impactfulness, utilize, the ball's in your court, on the same page, step up to it, information superhighway, turf protection, customer service, stakeholder. ... Dilbert would love it. It's not easy to decide which is more American, this subversive bingo game or the corporatespeak it mocks.

To quote a story in Monday's Wall Street Journal: "Players sit in meetings and silently check off buzzwords as their bosses spout them; the first to fill in a complete line wins. But, in deference to the setting, the winner typically coughs instead of shouting out ``bingo.'' It occurs that Buzzword Bingo might add some interest to the candidate interviews that editorial writers conduct during election season.

Doublespeak is scarcely a new phenomenon. It's been half a century now since George Orwell coined the term in Nineteen Eighty-Four. As he noted in his ever-fresh essay "Politics and the English Language": "Political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." By now the process has gone far beyond that simple level. Today political language has become largely the explanation of the inexplicable.


©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.