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Jewish World Review / Nov. 3, 1998 /13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Global village goes Clintonesque

WORD SEARCHES CAN BE FUN on the Internet, particularly if you're out to see how far Arkansas usages have spread. Bill Clinton's ascension to the presidency has been a boon for Arkansas lexicologists, who can follow our native son's trail through various terms that now have become part of the national and the international language. Slick Willie, for example.

(A note for those interested in the etymology of American nicknames: Slick Willie was 18 years old last Sept. 27, if you recognize his birthday as the date the editorial page of the Pine Bluff Commercial first assigned a slick young governor that sobriquet back in 1980.)

deep doo-doo Then there is the infamous Clinton Clause, meaning the subtle escape hatch that comes with every glorious promise or general assertion. The Clinton Clause is now so common, it has started to appear in lower case. As in: "The most common usage connected with Bill Clinton by some counts is the clinton clause.'' Can you spot it in that sentence?

Clinton has yet to become a common noun -- like a Fulbright, quisling, or boycott -- but it could happen any day now, as in: "Don't try to pull a Clinton.'' The meaning is already perfectly clear. The use of Clinton as a verb is still rare, as in: "Now don't Clinton on me.'' But one does hear it from time to time among people of loose syntax.

The other day, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal -- Joshua Harris Prager -- followed the trail of the adjective, Clintonesque, halfway around the globe. He cited a number of domestic examples, including one from the Richmond Times-Dispatch that owes as much to Gertrude Stein as Bill Clinton: "Perhaps it will find a Clintonesque way to explain why a raise isn't a raise isn't a raise.''

A few weeks ago, in its Oct. 12 edition, Forbes magazine explained: "North Korea claims it was only launching a satellite, but this Clintonesque hair-splitting provides little comfort.''

Down in Louisiana, Baton Rouge's Morning Advocate contributed this entry last month: "That sounds so Clintonesque in definition as to be absurd.''

And the Houston Chronicle came up with this observation: "The object of the whole Clintonesque endeavor remains the same: to lie without exactly, legally, technically lying.'' Which sounds like a good, workaday definition of the clintonesque. The distinction between Clintonian and Clintonesque isn't entirely clear yet, rather like the difference between the classic and the classical, but time and usage will surely shed light.

Just as Marshall McLuhan could have predicted, the global village (a kind of clintonesque concept itself) has taken the clintonesque to heart, or at least to tongue. There is something contradictory in the thought of whole-hearted allegiance to the Clintonesque, but the word seems to have sprouted everywhere, like a particularly noxious weed.

For examples:

"But with the conference due to debate Europe today, Lord Lamont, the former chancellor, accused pro-Europeans of 'Clintonesque ambiguities' and challenged them to `come out of the closet' over their intentions toward a federal Europe.'' -- The Irish Times, Oct. 7, 1998.

Not to be outdone, a week later the Independent in London protested: "This Clintonesque usage will come as a shock to those of us who use the English language in a straightforward manner, in order to communicate and inform, rather than to obfuscate.''

Commenting on affairs in the Far East, The Hindu informed its readers: "For that reason, despite harsh demands in public, Mr. Kim is likely to forgive Mr. Obuchi for being somewhat Clintonesque in his parsing of the phraseology of an expected apology.''

To borrow a line from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, perhaps Mr. Obuchi was only trying to give a bald and unconvincing narrative an air of verisimilitude, which sounds like a pedant's definition of the Clintonesque.

In the Orient, Clintonesque seems to have acquired a specific connotation: The act of parsing meaning down to nothingness, as one would peel the layers from an onion. But of course, that all depends on what you mean by somewhat. Or parsing. Or peeling. Or an onion. Or Wednesday. The Clintonesque might be defined as the ultimate in deconstruction: all de- and no construction. The rationale is simple: A politician can't be accused of lying if he never actually says anything.

Or as Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun chimed in just a couple of weeks ago, on Oct. 15: "At the risk of sounding Clintonesque, I suppose it all depends on how one defines the term violent.'' The only violence done by the clintonesque is to meaning, but it's considerable. And now it's worldwide.

Our own formidable webmaster here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dauphne Trenholm, came up with these additional entries in the worldwide Clintonesque sweepstakes:

"He later, again adopting the Clintonesque approach, alleged that he'd never heard of pepper spray.'' -- Toronto's Financial Times, Oct. 16, 1998.

"The switch from underground gossip to the public domain left Mr. Montri little room for Clintonesque maneuver.'' -- South China Morning Post, Oct. 21, 1998.

"Shearer's description of the incident was Clintonesque in its guarded precision.'' -- The Observer, London, Oct. 17, 1998.

"It left me in a Clintonesque situation. I had the original compulsion to lie but soon realized that denying having that one cigarette left me vulnerable to much worse -- even Lewinskian-accusations. Most of which, it had to be said, were true.'' -- Paul Wilson in the London Times, Oct. 16, 1998. (Note: This is the first recorded use of the adjective Lewinskian I've seen; that's a whole other kettle of verbiage.)

The most clintonesque performance rounded up by the Wall Street Journal's Mr. Prager had to be this comment from a spokesman at the White House when asked to comment on what clintonesque means: "Whatever the term, the American people understand that President Clinton is doing their work.''

And what do you suppose the work of the American people is, obfuscation? As a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court once said of obscenity, the clintonesque isn't easy to define, but you know it when you see it.


11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate