Time to Hit The Brakes On That Cliche

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Word to the wise, all you politicos: Beware of the bus.

This humble mode of transportation has become an unstoppable serial killer this presidential season, metaphorically speaking. Hardly a week goes by without someone reviving the cliche of the 2008 campaign -- that a former ally of a candidate has been thrown under a bus.

Sen. Larry Craig accused Mitt Romney of throwing him under a bus when Craig's arrest on charges of soliciting an undercover officer went public. "He not only threw me under the bus, he backed up and ran over me again," said Craig, who'd been Romney's liaison to the Senate.

Talk radio host Bill Cunningham claimed he got the Trailways treatment from John McCain after Cunningham referred to "Barack Hussein Obama" at a McCain rally.

"I got thrown under the bus," he later told CNN.

Obama himself has been accused of vehicular homicide several times. Obama adviser Samantha Power was shoved under the wheels after she was quoted calling Hillary Clinton a "monster." Further Obama bus mayhem: when he said in his race-relations speech in Philadelphia that his white grandmother held some racist views, and this week, when he distanced himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (Supporters, in that instance, were urging the bus throw.)

Clinton has fielded bus-crime accusations, too. In a debate last August, Melissa Etheridge told the candidate that her husband had betrayed the gay community.

"We were thrown under the bus," Etheridge said. "We were pushed aside."

And on and on. Because reporters and op-ed writers love the rampaging four-wheeler motif as much as pols, the path to the White House is now littered with figurative roadkill. Which is a little baffling for a few reasons, most notably that the phrase does a pitiful job of conveying its intended meaning. And now it's terribly hackneyed.

Shakespeare dreamed up a lot of ways to whack ex-friends, and innovation has yielded countless lethal weapons since the Bard put down his pen. But right now in American politics, when candidates distance themselves from supporters, they apparently have just one move. Run 'em over. With a bus.

It's unclear where the phrase came from, but there's no doubting it's having a heyday. There are bus-throw references in the late '90s, mostly in professional sports. (Players who don't get their contracts renewed are often said to get you know what under you know where.) The phrase turns up in politics in 1999, according to a database search, with its maiden voyage courtesy of a press secretary for a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.

Take a bow, Ken Snyder, who told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "It's going to take a while for everyone to get over the fact that John White tried to throw our party under a bus because he felt bad about losing."

There are occasional bus throws in the 2004 campaign, as when then-candidate Howard Dean said after a debate in 2003, "We didn't throw old people under the bus." As a nominee, John Kerry reportedly suggested that Azerbaijan "should be thrown under a bus," though it's not clear how anyone could toss a whole country under anything, let alone a Greyhound.

The maim-by-bus concept really came into vogue last year and now, through overuse, it has been drained of nearly all of its bone-crushing vividness. It's just a little fresher, at this point, than "out of touch with mainstream America" and "There Will Be Blood" puns.

But there's another reason to retire this phrase. It doesn't really work.

To explain why, let's first ask what the phrase actually expresses. It's the bus rather than a bus, which suggests we're talking about campaign buses, which function here as metaphors for each candidate's cause -- the bus as bandwagon. And because the phrase always refers to a former supporter who is being cut loose, you have to surmise that the person being run over begins this ordeal on the bus. Which gets to a tricky question: How do you toss someone under a bus they're already on?

One possible answer is that the run-overee, if you will, isn't on the bus at all. Maybe he or she is standing on the sidewalk and gets shoved into the street by the candidate. But what is the candidate doing on the street? Why isn't the candidate on the bus?

It's a matter that at least one victim has contemplated.

"When I used that phrase," Cunningham said in an interview yesterday, "what I imagined is that I was sitting by the side of a road, waiting for John McCain and the Straight Talk Express to pick me up so that we could drive off together. And instead, John McCain got out of the bus, lifted me up by the ankles and threw me under the tires. Then got back on the bus, slammed the door and drove off. And I got hurt. I think the Straight Talk Express put some tread marks on my back."

Waiting on a sidewalk or already onboard -- either way, "thrown under the bus" fails to capture a key dimension of all this road rage. For the candidates, the point is not to inflict pain. It's to ditch a problem that is a drag on momentum, to regain speed. But unlike a hot air balloon, which rises as it sheds weight, a bus minus one person won't go any faster.

It seems like the very least a cliche can do is get at the heart of the truth that it's constantly being summoned to explain. If "thrown under the bus" can't do that, well, frankly it's a liability. And it's pretty clear what we'll have to do with it.

Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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