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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2000 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The man who started it all -- IT WAS TIME to track him down again, the man responsible for all the election slogans now behind us and all the post-election platitudes ahead of us.

For Pierre Clichi there is no off-season. His mark on the language is as recognizable as smudges on eyeglasses, as that little polo player on shirts, as those little oak leaves inside your house and car this time of year.

You don't think "you know'' and "frankly'' and "have a nice day'' got into the language all by themselves, do you?

Mass-produced phrases are shipped out of M. Clichi's plant by the millions -- to be recycled daily by inarticulate consumers desperate for sounds to fill up their empty sentences. Whatever.

I was anxious to hear -- which is not at all the same as eager to hear -- what would be said about this election by the pundits, talk-show hosts, newspaper editorials, and eventually, when it all filtered down, the guy on the next bar stool.

And there is no better source to consult on these matters than M. Clichi, whose very name is one.

However popular his products, the man himself is a recluse, even though he likes to lose himself in crowds.

The master seeks no credit for his work (who would?) and goes by various pseudonyms: Anonymous, Reliable Source, For Background Only, The Man on the Street, Press Release, E-mail ... . He's got a million of 'em.

The redoubtable and ever quotable M. Clichi considers it the greatest tribute to his works when they remain unattributed and unabridged, when they have entered the warp and woof of the language like so much lint.

Those are the choice phrases he frames on his wall, don't you know? But he takes no credit for them. The man does have some taste.

The great author lives in an ordinary bungalow in a nondescript neighborhood of a small suburb of a medium-sized city in a standard statistical metropolitan area.

He moves regularly, with the Smiths and Joneses, since he insists on living in an average house on a median income, and both keep changing.

M. Clichi never stays in any one place long, for he can't bear tradition, custom, ritual, the classical or biblical. He understands that those are the deadly enemies of his trade, for his focus must always be on The New You.

His vocabulary is always being revamped to cover the absence of ideas.

When I arrived for my, of course, exclusive interview, M. Clichi was busy in the den. He was working away on a slippery patina of verbiage for the president-elect's first speech.

The place was cluttered with platitudes of, yes, years gone by. It was clear that he was still plying his -- what else? -- trade.

The demand for his post-election analysis was so great that old Pierre had been obliged to put aside his usual work for television anchorpersons, bores next door, waiters who want to chat, magazine salesmen, and your aunt's best friend who wants to tell you about her latest fascinating ailment.

It had been a busy year for Pierre. He'd already fashioned all the speeches for two separate but equally uninspiring national political conventions; the complete texts of three presidential debates; a slew of newspaper endorsements; a variety of post-election analyses by Washington insiders; the advertising copy for all the visually beautiful but verbally challenged Web sites being plugged on television; and a selection of uniformly meaningless memos from corporate executives and government bureaucrats.

Now it was time for Pierre to demonstrate his extraordinary mastery of the ordinary once again. In answer to my penetrating questions designed to elicit new insights, his role was to give answers guaranteed to be as impenetrable as your phone bill.

In the event any of his clichis proved memorable -- or defective in any other way -- Cliche & Co. made it a policy to redeem the product with another of equal value or your money back in airline miles within 30 days or the period specified in the prospectus ... "Monsieur Clichi,'' I began, "it was good of you to grant me this rare audience. Your work must be the most widely disseminated in the English language or any other .''

"But of course. My pleasure. Don't mention it. It's good to be here.''

"Can you tell me where this election was really decided?''

"In the battleground states, formerly swing states. It is absolutely necessary in journalism to say something new without saying anything different. I'm particularly pleased with this substitution of Battleground for Swing. It fits the Changing Times. And it's selling like, of course, hotcakes.''

"And which votes really counted this election?''

"The electoral votes.''

"What was the purpose of President Clinton's visit to Arkansas the Sunday before the election?''

"To energize his party's base.''

"What in the end determined this election's outcome?''

"Which candidate got his voters to the polls.''

"Anything else?''

"The turnout.''

"What have both the Democratic and Republican campaigns been?''

"Carefully orchestrated.''

"And what did the candidates do in this campaign?''

"They traded barbed.''

"What role has Ralph Nader played in this campaign?''

"That of spoiler.''

"And what ain't we seen yet?''


"What do you think will be the effect of this election?''

"Only time will tell. It could represent a paradigm shift. But it will certainly impact events.''

At that, M. Clichi rose, which was my signal to leave.

The old phrasemaker, or rather recycler, explained that he had much work to do, having already been engaged to start work on the 100-volume memoirs of William Jefferson Clinton.

Besides, he also had to ghostwrite several quickie books on "The Making of the President 2000.''

M. Clichi then bid me -- what else? -- adieu, and disappeared behind a towering stack of banalities that looked as if it were about to collapse on us all.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate