Politics, as you may have noticed, is not growing in popularity or in stature. In spite of a lot of liberalizing new laws, voter turnout dropped in every presidential election from 1960 to 1980. Abscam didn't help. By now, there seem to be in circulation approximately 437 public opinion polls that all place politicians, in terms of public esteem, in a dead heat with loan sharks and below industrial polluters. Politics is in trouble.
Now is the time for those of us who preach about the importance and value of politics to try to help. The rehabilitation of politics must begin with the way those in politics speak about it. Something must be done immediately to clean up its language.
This has nothing to do with expletives completed or deleted. Quite the opposite. There is nothing salty or profane about the unattractive habit that politicians have of making nouns into verbs. Until you've heard a congressman describe Jimmy Carter's failure to "dialogue" with the American people, you might not understand that new administrations have to "staff up," and once they have, they can "memo" everybody involved.
Of course, this is not the exclusive malpractice of politics. Many vocations insist upon their peculiar jargon to add mystery and significance to their jobs. Politicians, by adopting the poetry of the computer printout, seek to pass as contemporary men--that is, not as politicians.
When today's politicians are not denying their business, they seem to be knocking it. Is there any other profession or occupation, besides politics, in which the ambitious strive for promotion by trying to persuade the audience that they, the ambitious, are neither comfortable nor experienced in the profession? Of course not. Surgeons and pilots do not offer us, as professional references, their respective aversion to hospitals and airports.
Yet candidates for high political office feverishly seek our votes by trying to convince us that they are not politicians. Some first certify their own ignorance of all things political and then censure their opponents as "politicians" who will provide nothing more than "politics as usual." Maybe we should be upset with nurses who provide "medicine as usual" or three-piece combos that produce "music as usual."
If candidates expect civilians to have any respect for them or their positions, candidates must change their language habits. They must stop talking in those noun-verbs and they must cease immediately the defamation of their chosen field and of their colleagues in that field. All pols would do well to recall the Irish line about how the devil was an angel until he started knocking the old home town.
At least one successful candidate has not succumbed to transistor talk. This renegade is Charles Royer, the mayor of Seattle. Recently, a U.S. Senate committee, without hearings, approved a bill that would limit cities' regulation or ownership of cable television systems. Not surprisingly, some mayors were upset by this prospective diminution of their power and responsibility.
In reporting to his colleagues what the committee action meant, Royer did not, you might say, "euphemize." "We got pantsed in the Senate" was what he said.
Granted, "pantsed" is technically another noun-verb. But "pantsed" is very different from "dialogued," which somehow deadens the air. To be pantsed, for anyone who may have escaped that youthful rite, means to have one's trousers removed against one's will in a manner intended to humiliate. The mayors were pantsed, according to Royer. The committee's action did not "impact adversely" on the mayors, thank goodness.
The road to rehabilitation for American politics will be long and difficult. Words alone will not do the job. But the right words can help. Maybe we can still hope that some courageous, self-admitted politician will publicly declare that Budget Director David Stockman has "short-sheeted" Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on future Pentagon spending.