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Political Troublespeak: With Each Scandal, a New Lingo Style Showcase

By Elizabeth Kastor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page A22

Remember back in the distant past -- say, Tuesday -- when it was hard to work the phrase "suborning perjury" into casual conversation?

No more. Scandal has once again infected the city, and with it comes that peculiar local dialect, the ritualized vocabulary of political frenzy.

There are instantly ubiquitous catch phrases: "No improper relationship" has become the "no controlling legal authority" of 1998.

There are the incantations: White House press secretary Mike McCurry's "I'm not going to parse the statement." President Clinton's "I am going to cooperate with the investigation."

Public speech becomes simultaneously overblown and over-lawyered. Who knew there were so many, many ways to say "I'm not going to say anything"?

"It is very formulaic," says lawyer Leonard Garment, who knows from scandal as a onetime Nixon aide.

"The language becomes very muddy, foggy," he says. "Everybody says the same things, or they say what are generically the same things. The denials -- 'We don't know. We're investigating. It's untrue. It's not a problem. I'm not having sex with her' -- in the present tense, past tense, the pluperfect. It's very confusing language."

But then, in this dreary gray landscape, colorful language explodes.

"I smell a rat in this," said Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett, with ominous inferences and literary gravity.

Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, offered up melodramatic imagery with an undertone of sexual assault: "If the president of the United States did this -- and I'm not saying that he did -- with this young lady, I think he's a misogynist. If he didn't, then I think Ken Starr and his crew have ravaged the life of a youngster."

And with each new scandal comes the sudden intimacy of first names. Fawn. Donna. Gennifer. Paula. And now Monica.

Mistakes were made.

For those accused, scandal-speak takes no blame, admits to nothing. The passive voice is popular: Nothing wrong was done by anyone in particular, something just sort of happened. "Incident" serves nicely too. How appalling can something be if it's only an incident?

"One of my obsessions is 'the appearance of impropriety,' " says Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate. "It's the cop-out from both directions. Someone who is guilty can say, 'I'm sorry for creating the appearance of impropriety.' He apologized without admitting anything."

Words spoken in times like these have literal meanings, of course, but they also give off vibrations.

"There's a need on either side to get the right associations," says Jesse Sheidlower, project director of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. "That might mean using language that has a moral or legal significance, or language that makes light of these things."

So independent counsel Kenneth Starr relies on the hallowed standards of American justice: "I have a very strong belief in facts and in truth," he said at a news conference Thursday, "and that the facts will come out and the truth will come out -- eventually -- consistent with the presumption of innocence."

And Clinton adopts a phrase that echoes with nearly Victorian propriety: He did not, he has said repeatedly, have an "improper relationship" with Lewinsky.

But sometimes the associations are unintentionally eerie. According to reports, Lewinsky referred to Clinton as the "creep." The last time that word floated through a scandal was back in the '70s and it was an acronym, standing darkly for the Committee to Re-Elect the President -- Richard Nixon.

There was no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of the law.
-- Al Gore, repeatedly, during a March 1997 news conference

So soothing, so precise, so impenetrable -- legal jargon is the ultimate dialect of scandal.

"Lawyers have power," says Roger Shuy, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of "The Language of Confession, Interrogation and Deception." "Their language is impressive. . . . People will say, 'They know! They say things like 'aid and abet' and 'heretofore' and 'hereinafter.' "

Try it yourself. Just say "suborning perjury." Don't you feel smarter and more credible already?

The modified limited hangout. The big enchilada. The smoking gun. A cancer on the presidency. I am not a crook. Expletive deleted. Enemies list. Dirty tricks.

High crimes and misdemeanors.

Anything-gate.

Not all scandal-speak feels like so many Lego bricks of evasion stuck together. New expressions are minted, phrases we never knew we needed are suddenly indispensable. Which ones will last this time? Sex, lies and audiotape? Naughty-gate? Sexgate? Fornigate?

The cultural fashions of the time also shape the conversation. Because this is a late-'90s scandal, it was probably inevitable that someone (as Lewinsky is reported to have done) would describe Clinton as being "in denial."

What I am trying to do is contain my natural impulses and get back to work. . . .

Whatever I feel about it, I owe it to the American people to put it in a little box and keep working for them. . . .

I think that's all I should say right now so I can get back to the work of the country.
-- Clinton, during a series of interviews on Wednesday

Behind the cliches, the cautious utterances, the clever coinages, lurk some pretty basic human desires.

"But meanwhile, I've got to go on with the work of the country."

Translation: Please, couldn't we just forget about the whole thing?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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