THAT THE freshest phrase will turn stale sooner or later may be obvious, but it is unclear why some stale phrases stay in circulation so much longer than others. Why, for example, do bureaucrats continue to warn against "reinventing the wheel" long after having recognized the silliness of "the whole ball of wax?"
The enduring Washington cliches are not necessarily more vivid than other phrases that enjoyed a brief vogue and vanished, but they tend to be more polemical. In a city where money and power are not, strictly speaking, "made" but appropriated and delegated, the prevailing cliches are metaphors of advocacy, extenuation and controversy. The Washington cliche did not necessarily originate near the Potomac, but it survived in government because it became an off-the-shelf component of an argument or an excuse.
Choosing the 10 worst was not easy. It meant passing over durable antiques like "can of worms," "a new ball game" and the relatively expressive metahor for bureaucratic evasion, "like nailing jelly to the wall." My criteria for those nominated here included triteness, of course, but also currency and mischievousness. 1. Reinventing the wheel
The phrase suggests that someone, a rival office perhaps, should not spend time or money doing something already done before. Note that it implies that the thing previously done was simple, basic and virtually unimprovable. No one cautions against "reinventing the pocket calculator."
Apart from its triteness, the principle objection to this cliche is its frequent misapplication to situations where the point at issue is not creating something, but learning something. Every new federal executive repeats some of the experiments of his predecessor, including a few that previously failed. And so he should. If you are thrown unexpectedly into deep water, you should not hesitate to "reinvent swimming." 2. The Band-aid Approach
Those who use this cliche in reference to their own programs are implying that a transfusion of money would be better. Those who apply it to a rival's program mean that surgery is required.
There are, of course, many situations when the human body, and the body politic, need only short-term protection and time to heal. It is difficult to make this case in rebuttal to a "Band-aid" sneer, however, because it implies that one is not taking the problem seriously. Debate focuses on wheter the proposed remedy is adequate, rather than on the precise nature of the case. This is already a large gain for the player who invokes the "Band-aid" cliche. 3. Root cause
The same people who object to Band-aid solutions object to anything that does not get to the "root cause" of a problem, which may be anything from crime in America to the location of the office coffee pot. Idealistic staffers at HEW have been known to blurt out that the root causes are being treated with Band-aids. The metaphor is ancient, as in "the axe is laid to the roots of the tree." However, anyone who has actually tried to grub out the roots of some still-living stump will understand why prophetic zeal is only occasionally acted upon. The roots are always deeper than one expects. 4. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
A fine sally when first used, this cliche, like the two preceding it, implies temporizing measures in the face of a crisis. It is now widely used in Washington either to overdramatize a wide range of trivial problems or to disparge moderately constructive measures. For example: "You're putting up a "No Smoking' sign in your office? With all the pollution outside, that's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!" The effect is to make a minor civility seem stupid. 5. Throwing money at it
Since the preceding cliches might be regarded as liberal cliches, so it is only fair to give conservatives equal time. Unlike "roots," this is a new cliche. At no earlier time in history would it have occurred to people to throw money at problems. The myth of King Midas warns against avarice; I think of no myth against public, as distinct from private, profligacy. However, I do recall reading as a child a story in which the hero escaped from a mob by throwing gold coins in the street and getting away during the ensuing commotion. That may be what some programs are designed to do. 6. Using a bomb for a flyswatter
This cliche is normally used to explain why the speaker did nothing. "It would have been like using a bomb for a flyswatter." Transmission of this cliche is almost exclusively oral. If the problem proves to be more serious than one anticipated, one hardly wants a memo in the files as evidence that one thought it wasy fly-sized. In writing, one explains that one did not want to overreact. That is a defensible position, even with bomb-sized difficulties. 7. Low profile
One doesn't hear this one so often anymore, but it was once welcomed as a godsend of a cliche -- an impressive way to describe what bureaucrats do instinctively and had previously sounded apologetic about. One has only to compare it to "I'm not going to stick my neck out" to sense the gain in tone. The "low profile" phrase was probably military in origin, describing tanks or something. Like "game plan," its current decline may be a temporary feeling that it is too closely identified with the Nixon administration. I prefer to think, however, that consciously or not, uses of "low profile" sense that it sounds like "sloping forehead." 8. Bite the bullet
This means to take some action or make some decision; just about anything will do. The expression is sometimes explained as deriving from a step in the loading of old rifles. More probably, it refers to giving a wounded soldier something on which to clamp his teeth during pre-anesthetc surgery. Either way, it is thought to suggest decisiveness. Strictly speaking, it only implies that the proposed action is more dignified than screaming. 9. The crunch
Used interchangeably as (1) a critical point or day of reckoning ("When it comes to a crunch . . . "); (2) a temporary crisis ("I'd like to do that, but we're in a crunch"); or (3) a perceived limitation ("budget crunch"). The origins of the expression are unclear, but it vaguely suggests a football scrimmage or a demolition derby.
This cliche is used to distract attention from the nature of most bureaucratic emergencies, which are not so much dramatic clashing of opposing forces as attempts to avoid direct confrontation. However, there is no point in expecting a federal official to say, "When it comes to the squish," "We're in a crumple," or "We've got a budget crinkle." 10. The bottom line
This is currently the Washington cliche par excelence, and it is generally mischievous. It implies that there is a bottom line, that things can be reduced to some numerical profit-and-loss statement. In fact, only a few things can be so reduced. At best, the search for a bottom line is likely to lead to artifical and generally ignored cost-benefit studies by high-priced contractors. At worst, it encourags single-number indicators of results like "the body count," with pernicious side effects.
There is no one line; neither is there a bottom. The effects of public decisions spread out through the world in many directions. It would be a great improvement if executives could turn to their staffs and say, "OK, what's the last ripple?" We could use some gentler cliches.