Chances are, when Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has something to say, it'll be obvious.
One needn't spend much time with Ehrlich to pick up on his most enduring verbal tic. It surfaced repeatedly during a radio interview last week:
"Obviously, the economic signs are very positive," he told WBAL listeners as he discussed the state's $1 billion budget surplus.
About Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime aide he fired after evidence of rumor-mongering emerged? "Obviously, a full investigation was completed," Ehrlich said.
And when talk show host Bruce Elliott asked about Vincent Gardina, the fired state worker who won a $100,000 settlement from the state after claiming he was dismissed only for his politics?
"Obviously, nothing can be discussed about that at-will employee situation . . . because the terms of that are closed and my lawyer, [Attorney General] Joe Curran, has instructed us we cannot talk about it. Clearly."
Things aren't just obvious when the governor is being put on the defensive, either. A search through news archives turned up scores of occasions when there was apparently little doubt about the governor's pleasure.
As when the Republican governor won his lawsuit in February allowing him to deny certain Baltimore Sun reporters access to state officials: "Obviously, I'm pleased." Or when the House of Delegates approved his slot machine gambling bill for the first time: "I'm obviously very pleased." Or the time lawmakers rejected a proposal to curtail his budgetary powers: "Obviously, it is a win, and we are very pleased."
Why is everything so obvious to Ehrlich?
That's not so obvious, said the governor's friend, Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor who studies political rhetoric.
Lots of politicians lean on certain verbal crutches, especially as they endure a seemingly endless succession of speeches and public appearances. President Ronald Reagan used the word "renew" all the time -- "renewed strength, renewed vigor, renewed vision" -- the professor recalled. For President Richard Nixon, the recycled phrase was, "It would be easy to do X, and that's why we do Y."
"He thought it would convey that he had political courage," Vatz said of Nixon. "All through his career, he had locutions like that."
There's even a fancy academic term for this type of device -- "paramessage credibility" -- which has to do with words that convey a deeper symbolic meaning than what's immediately evident.
In the case of the word "obviously," Vatz suggested that perhaps the governor is intending to communicate a certain level of mastery, a command of the facts.
But does he do so intentionally? Was he trained to use the word so often?
George Lakoff, a University of California Berkeley linguist who has been teaching Democrats how to better harness their words to be more persuasive, said that Ehrlich may well have come by it honestly.
Repetition of such words, he said, are common with certain personalities. "It's a matter of intimidation. It says, 'If this isn't obvious to you, you're an idiot.' "
More than that, Lakoff said, "it presupposes that what you're about to say is true. It keeps people from asking more questions or from challenging you."
Lakoff said he encounters the word fairly often in academic circles, along with a few other similar words and phrases: "As anyone can tell," "It's long been known," "Clearly."
Gregory Massoni, Ehrlich's press secretary, said he is with the governor all the time and has never noticed him saying any of those words or phrases with unusual frequency. He doesn't know whether the governor was coached to repeat the word while making public remarks, but if he was, "he'd probably do the opposite," Massoni said.
To anyone who knows the governor, he added, that much should be obvious.