Ruth Marcus
Columnist December 6, 2011

Politicians reveal themselves by the language they use. Not simply the intricacies of their policy positions or even the quality of their intellects, but something closer to the human core. Today’s lesson in the laws of political grammar involves the indiscriminate employment of adverbs (Newt Gingrich) and the smarmy use of the first-person plural (Mitt Romney).

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing,” George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” The same is true of political rhetoric.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Indeed, as Orwell noted, “when one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases . . . one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy. . . . The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”

Has Orwell been watching the Republican debates?

But, to switch from Orwell to Tolstoy, all bad political rhetoric is bad in its own, telling way.

Let’s take Romney and the first-person plural first, shall we?

The most telling part of Romney’s disastrous interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier involved his bristling response to Baier’s entirely predictable — and entirely fair — questions about the former Massachusetts governor’s shifting policy positions.

“One,” Romney began, in the bulleted manner of a man who loves his PowerPoint — although he never actually made it to two. “We’re going to have to be better informed about my views on issues,” he continued, his face fixed in a tight smile.

We’re going to have to be better informed?

There is, in politics, an appropriate, energizing, even uplifting use of the first-person plural. This is the “we” as in “we Americans,” pulling together, part of a greater whole. That is not Romney’s “we.” Romney’s is not even the royal we, as in “we are not amused,” which would be bad enough.

It is the patronizing, faux “we” of the middle school principal who has just found the boys scribbling graffiti on the wall and wants to know what we are going to do about it — before he calls our parents.

At that moment of the Baier interview, you — is that we? — could see the father, church leader, investment banker, politician unaccustomed to being challenged and none too pleased with it. Indeed, according to Baier, after Romney returned to his holding room, he came back to tell Baier that the questioning was “uncalled for.”

Sorry, Principal Romney. Bret will write on the chalkboard, 100 times, “I will not ask difficult questions.”

If Romney’s “we” illuminates his attitude of unchallengeable authority, Gingrich’s profligacy with adverbs exposes his grandiosity.

The former speaker is the “Truly, Madly, Deeply” of political candidates, except his movie would be titled, “Fundamentally, Profoundly, Deeply.”

Dan Amira of New York magazine conducted a heroic Nexis search of Gingrich transcripts back to 2007 and found 418 separate uses of “fundamentally” or its adjective cousin “fundamental,” including 18 in a single 2008 speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

“Most adverbs are unnecessary,” William Zinsser advised in “On Writing Well,” but adverbs are essential to the grand Gingrichian enterprise.

“We need somebody with very substantial big ideas,” Gingrich told Fox News’s Sean Hannity the other day, and you know who that somebody is.

He wants to “fundamentally rethink the federal government,” “fundamentally change unemployment compensation,” “fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America.”

Conversely, in Gingrich’s view, his opponents are equally, fundamentally wrong. President Obama “is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works,” Gingrich said in September 2010, in the course of suggesting that only a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview could explain the president’s behavior.

If the president “gets reelected with this economy, this deficit, these problems,” Gingrich warned Saturday at a candidate forum, “he’s going to think it vindicates his Saul Alinsky radicalism and his commitment to fundamentally change America.”

This adverbial outpouring represents both the allure of Gingrich and his downside. Gingrich is bursting with ideas. Yet his self-regard is similarly immense, and his inclination to rhetorical extremes presents a constant danger of overstepping.

Romney’s language suggests his distaste for being challenged and his barely concealed sense of superiority. Gingrich’s language illustrates his egotism and indiscipline. As Romney and Gingrich might say, we’re going to have to work to fundamentally transform that.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

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