(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans reflects on word games and campaign rhetoric.
(Seamans) Those who enjoy savoring the meaning or the intent of words are relieved to see that the political parsing game is surviving the primary and caucus season and is alive and well. First, a little time-line scene setting.
You’ll recall, I’m sure, that the nation was gripped by parsing fever back when President Clinton tried to explain his scandalous Oval Office misadventure – remember how we tried to fathom what the meaning of “is” is. It was such an engrossing problem that it challenged the other game being played by virtually every pundit and political problem-solver in Washington when it seemed that the only solution to perplexing questions meant Connecting the Dots.
But as they say, fame can be fleeting and so it was with IS. Then as the political campaign started picking up steam, we tried to assess the characters of the presidential candidates compared to that of President Bush, himself. We recall that then the word GRAVITAS seized the scene and pushed IS off the table.
Now, since GRAVITAS we’ve had a parsing hiatus – perhaps we needed some theraputic relief from the cerebral stress of considering IS and GRAVITAS. Then the primary season arrived with a new challenge for the thundering herd of reporters and pundits. How to wrap up the description of a candidate in a word – the word that emerged was ELECTABILITY. And then the slumbering parsing game was wakened by strenuous discussions over what attributes created an aura of Electability – the candidates’s rhetoric, looks, voice, military service, spouse, closet skeletons, rolled up sleeves, sweater-style, and how well one endured a Tim Russert Meet the Press grilling!
Sharing the parsing spotlight was controversy over the word IMMINENT – William Safire in his Sunday New York Times column on language noted that while Bush said that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes he did not use the word Imminent.
Safire discussed various opinions including that of Condoleezza Rice who said new technology requires new thinking about when a threat actually becomes imminent. And Donald Rumsfeld asked, At what moment was the threat of September 11 imminent? A week before, a month before, a year before, an hour before? Safire was more succinct about Imminent. It’s a word, he said, “that issues a warning that marches a nation to war.
So it looks like those who harbor a passion for parsing can look forward to eight more months of campaign rhetoric that hopefully will produce more words with debatable meanings.
This is Bill Seamans.
Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.