I was struck, in working my was through the burgeoning literature of the Stockman affair, by what I now think of as the trickle-down dust-up. It seems to have conformed to the pattern in these things: the offending phrase, on which the subject subsequently hangs himself, comes in the first place from elsewhere. Either it is introduced by an interviewer as a kind of efficient shortand without, so far as I can see, any particular malice, or it is picked up by the subject from the general context of complaint and conversation on the matter at hand -- the subject of the interview, in other words, seeking to answer his critics at large on their own terms.
Whichever it was with Stockman in the famed Atlantic Monthly article, the effect was deadly. He conceded, William Greider writes, "what the liberal Keynesian critics had argued from the outset," that current White House economic theory amounted, in some respects, to a revised version of the ancient Republican doctrine of letting "the good effects 'trickle down through the economy." Had the friendly gods of politics been in attendance, they would have shrieked at Stockman as one: "Don't touch the phrase with a 10-foot pole, sonny boy." But he did. He picked it up and used it copiously as shorthand himself. There were a dozen other (nonlethal) ways of saying the same thing.
I am not suggesting that the business about "trickle down" is, in itself, what caused all the uproar. Bur it sure helped. And that leads me to the first of two great principles I am about to set forth for the benefit of politicians hoping to avoid the flap trap. It is this: probably you should begin every answer to an interlocutor's question or rejoinder to a critic's complaint with the disclaimer, "Of course, I don't accept that characterization of the problem or the language used..." and then find some other way of saying the same thing.
History bears me out. The half dozen or so of us still doddering around who can remember the days of Harry Truman also remember vividly how much trouble he got into by using the phrase "red herring" to disparage the Alger Hiss and other espionage investigations then being pursued. For years to come, whenever the investigators actually did find something, it would be smugly recollected how Truman had dismissed the whole matter as a "red herring." A school of the infernal and improbable fish followed him through the rest of his career. The press conference exchange that hatched them is worth reprinting:
Q. "Mr. President, do you think that the Capitol Hill spy scare is a 'red herring' to divert public attention from inflation?"
A. "Yes, I do."
That did it.
There is more. What do you think of when you think of Ronald Ziegler, if in fact you do. "Inoperative" -- isn't that the key damning word, taken from the Nixon press secretary's most clumsy effort to backtrack on a statement? The issue was why the Nixon White House was superseding a profession of innocence on a Watergate matter with a new statement that wasn't nearly so categorical concerning innocence.
"Ron, is this statement still correct?" the questioner anned of the statement being superseded. I count nine stout and stubborn places in the transcript of that exchange in which Ziegler insisted on dealing only with the new statement, which he had clearly been instructed to characterize as the "operative" one: "... The president's statement today is the operative statement.... This afternoon's statement is the operative position.... Today's statement... is precise... and it is the operative statement.... Today's is the operative statement," and on and on through the interrogation. Except at one place. Was he saying then "that the other statement is no longer operative, that it is now inoperative." Ziegler replied that this was "the operative statement" and then -- bingo! -- he agreed that, yes, "the others are inoperative." Surely, the word will appear no farther down than the third paragraph of he obituary.
On another famous word flap, George Romney's notorious gaffe in seeking to explain his change of heart on Vietnam (he said he had been "brainwashed" by our military there), the pickup is especially exotic. Romney's switch of position had been justified in a friendly editorial (editorals are the root of all evil) in a Detroit paper. It said, by way of complimenting his new disengagement from an old pro-administration stand: "He appeared to be brainwashed by the military during his 1965 trip to the front." Lots of people think Romney glommed onto this swell coinage in his statement three days later. It helped to do him in.
So principle one is look out... and avoid other people's catchwords like the plague. Principle two is this: you may say things that are false or even that are true -- but things that are blazingly, irrefutably, self-evidently, conspicuously and embarrassingly true, that is, truisms and unexceptionable sentiments, must never, never be given voice. They'll kill you every time.
Over the years, for instance, I joined in abominating two statements that caused an enormous uproar, but in retrospect both seem to have an almost-too-obvious component of truth. Barry Goldwater's borrowed wisdom ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue") could have been taken as the text for much of the best nonviolent protest that took place in the '60s. Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson's much-condemned remark about what was good for General Motors being good for the country and vice versa seems to me to bear a certain economic authenticity too, as I look at Detroit now, an authenticity that escaped me at the time.
Today's flap is (I think) tomorrow's received wisdom. It is also true, of course, that today's flapee usually isn't in a position of power and acclaim to enjoy it. I don't know whether Stockman will survive in his present job. He violated both great principles. He should have muttered, desisted, flattened out the language and withdrawn. Or, he should have employed the eternally operative and enduring locution of the White House official who said: "No comment, and that's off the record."