DINNER SPEAKING (and legislating) is rife with perils and pitfalls, foremost of which is the dreaded malaprop. (William Safire, word maven for The New York Times, claims there ain't such -- that the word I want is malapropism, but I don't think there will be a schism if I drop the ism.) Since everyone has, at one tiome or another, succumbed to this tongue-twisting affliction, all of us can sympathize with the pitiable speaker who uttered the fateful blooper.
Eisenhower was the undisputed champ of scrambled syntax, but here's a worthy contender from the bumbling lips of Gerald R. Ford: "If Lincoln were alive today he'd be turning over in his grave."
State Sen. John Parker of Massachusetts has a fine collection of verbal bloopers, an example: During a debate over the merits of pasteurized milk, a New Hampshire pol said, "What the people of this state deserve is clean, fresh, wholesome pastuerized milk. And, I'm going to the state house and take the bull by the horns until we get it."
A Southern politican who had suffered a narrow loss in a hard-fought campaign said, "My opponent deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass . . . and frankly, I'd like to be the one to do it!"
The malaprop also stalks the halls of Congress, claiming unwary victims of both parties. Former chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, F. Edward Hebert, once observed, "The only way we'll ever get a volunteer army is to draft 'em."
Commenting on a colleague's abilities, a senator said, "He's got a lot of depth on the surface, but deep down he's shallow as hell." In the same vein, someone (perhaps it was I) once said of Sam Steiger, a former congressman from Arizona, "He always makes a good first impression; to detest him, you really have to know him."
Rep. Silvio Conte of Massachusetts, one of my favorite Republicans and a man who is renowned for overheating during debates, once declaimed, "This is no time to pull the rug out in the middle of the stream."
UPI columnist Dick West also collects choice misstatements. One of his favorites was coined by New York Rep. Alfred Santangelo who rose in indignation about a proposal to have a national lottery. Such a thing, Santangelo declared, "was morally repugnant to millions of people, not only in the United States, but also in the 24th congressional district."
According to Dick West, the all-time champion congressional tongue-twister was the late Sen. Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska. There are many cherished Wherryisms, including his introduction of Sen. Spessard Holland of Florida as the "distinguished Senator from Holland." Wherry habitually referred to Chiang Kaishek as "Shanghai Jack," and supported him in his battles against the Chinese Communists and "Mousey Tongue," the leader of "Indigo China."
Sen. Joe McCarthy was known for tongue tripping -- particularly after a high-proof lunch. Of a witness's testimony he once said, "that's the most unheard of thing I ever heard of."
Bureaucrats, too, begat malaprops. Archivist West awards an honorable mention to an Agriculture Department official who testified before a Senate committee during the Billie Sol Estes inquiry. Defending the department's failure to anticipate a problem, the official said, "Unfortunately, we are not equipped with hindsight in advance." This is the type of statement West has under the heading, "Hitting the nail on the head in a nutshell."
The higher a politician aims his rhetoric, the more likely it is that he will launch an unguided missile. Speaking at a patriotic event honoring Abraham Lincoln, a politican said, "It is indeed fitting that we gather here today to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands." Another senator, frustrated by the continuing strife in the Middle East, recently wondered, "Why can't the Jews and the Arabs just sit down together and settle their problems like good Christians."
The late Sen. Joe Montoya of New Mexico will live forever in the Malaprops Hall of Fame. Montoya once arrived 90 minutes late for a dinner meeting in Albuquerque. He rushed into the ballroom and was handed a speech and a press relese covering its high points. Montoya strode to the podium, "Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be with you today." He hesitated, looked down at his script and read, "For Immediate Release . . . . "
Sen. Strom Thurmond once chaired an investigative hearing. Before he left his office, Thurmond's staff provided him with an opening statement and a list of questions for each witness. Arriving in the hearing room, Strom read the opening statement -- and then kept right on going: "If the first witness answers 'Yes,' then ask him so and so . . . . If the witness answers 'No' or "I'm not sure,' then ask him such and such." As the crowd started to titter, an aide rushed over and grabbed the paper from Thurmond's hand.
Philadelphia's former mayor, Frank Rizzo, was defensive about his administration. To a question which implied that the City of Brotherly Love was not so brotherly after dark, the former cop replied, "The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it's only the people who make them unsafe."
State legislatures can spawn malaprops and sundry bloopers at a staggering pace. the Wall Street Journal cited these gems from a recent session of the Michigan legislature:
"Before I give you the benefit of my remarks, I'd like to know what we're talking bout."
"There comes a time to put principle aside and do what's right."
"I don't see anything wrong with saving human life. . .that would be good politics, even for us."
"Some of our friends wanted it in the bill, some our friends wanted it out, and Jerry and I are going to stick with our friends."
"I'm not only for capital punishment, I'm also for the preservation of life."
"From now on, I'm watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb."
"The chair would wish the members would refrain from talking about the intellectual levels of other members. That always leads to problems."
"Mr. Chairman, fellow members and guests. That's a goddam lie!"
"I don't think people appreciate how difficult it is to be a pawn of labor."
"Let's violate the law one more year."
"Mr. Speaker, what bill did we just pass?"
An intentional use of a malaprop can be an easy way for a speaker to get a laugh. For example, I've frequently referred to Henry Kissinger as "a legend in his own mind." Kissinger himself has a great sense of humor, a thick German accent, and a wonderful sense of timing, all essential elements in his self-deprecating, yet occasionally pompous style. After one diplomatic meeting he announced, "Golda Meir and I agree on everything. . .including the fact that we don't see eye to eye." Kissinger's sense of humor enabled him not only to survive Watergate but to emerge with his prestige relatively intact. Making light of the scandal Kissinger would often say, "The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer." Another Kissingerism: "The history of things that didn't happen has never been written." Kissinger also had the last word on fame's perquisites: "Now when I bore people at a cocktail party they think it's their fault."
Euphemism and malaprops are kissing cousins. One year the National Association of English Teachers awarded its Doublespeak Award to the United States Department of State for its effort to redefine "killing" as "unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life." The Federal Aviation Administration went them one better when, in a report about an accident that had claimed 180 lives, it referred to the "premature impact of the aircraft with the terrain below." If I'm not mistaken, that's what we used to call a "crash." during the Three Mile Island disaster, utility officials fretted that a hydrogen buildup in the reactor could lead to "a rapid energetic disassembly" -- an explosion.
A few years ago, George Smathers was running against Claude Pepper in a Senate race. In a speech in rural Florida, Smathers did a euphemistic hatchet job on Pepper. It's now recognized as a classic of the genre: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that," Smathers went on, "but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in New York. Worst of all," Smathers said mournfully, "it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, practiced celibacy."
If takes courage to eschew euphemism -- courage that many politicians, bureaucrats and generals lack. During World War II Gen. Stillwell was hounded out of Burma by the Japanese. A few years later General MacArthur was overwhelmed by Chinese forces at the Yalu River in Korea. When asked by a diplomatic reporter whether his movement had been a "tactical retreat," Stillwell rejected the euphemism and said, "I claim that we took a hell of a beating."
Contrast that with MacArthur, who, when facing a similar situation, called a press conference to announce, "Should the Red Hordes continue to pour across the Yalu, it might not only render impossible the resumption of our offensive, but conceivably could cause us to eventuate a movement in retrograde."
Beyond euphemism we enter the tortured realm of obfuscation in which no politician -- with the possible exception of Al Haig -- was ever more comfortable than Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Asked at a press conference for his views on the war in Vietnam, Rocky energetically declared, "My position on Vietnam is very simple. And I feel this way. I haven't spoken on it because I haven't felt there was any major contribution that I had to make at the time. I think that our concepts as a nation and that our actions have not kept pace with the changing conditions. And therefore our actions are not completely relevant today to the realities of the magnitude and the complexity of the problems that we face in this conflict."
"What does that mean, Governor?" a reporter asked.
"Just what I said," Rocky replied.
Morris Udall is a Democratic congressman from Arizona and chairman of the House Interior Committee. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, "Too Funny to Be President."