Everyone knows the more familiar techniques of evasion in our political life -- the appointment of a commission, the call for an "in depth" study, the lofty refusal to comment at all on the ground that to do so would be (oh, dread crime) "inappropriate at this time." I think I am on to another. It is the creation of a body of mirage-words, terms and phrases that, utterly without justification, convey the impression that the speaker has just offered a solution to the problem at hand.
Utter a mirage-term at precisely the right moment and with a suitably aggressive air of having said something decisive and original and you are likely at least to still the argument long enough to get out of the room. I have thought about this frequently lately, and never more so than when rats were in town last week choosing a national chairman. At precisely that moment when it became clear that the conflict among contending forces was irreconcilable and could not end without new scars, all the concerned Democratic kibitzers I know said what they always say at this familiar juncture in their turbulent affairs. They said "Terry Sanford."
Democrats have been saying ''Terry Sanford" to me for about 15 years now whenever their affairs become hopeless. I should add that I in no way regard this incantation as reflecting poorly on the estimable Mr. Sanford himself, the wise former governor of North Carolina and president of Duke University. I regard it as having nothing to do with him at all. For even though he may be the kind of North-South, left-right, old-young fellow they persistently imagine can get them out of their troubles, they practically never turn to him and, even when they do, the troubles (which are of course bigger than Mr. Sanford) go on.
You will see from this example that I am talking about something here quite different from all those terms of grandeur we use to finish our sentences in politics without ever quite saying anything. These latter terms, deeply cherished by the Reagan administration, include all the old favorites -- national security, law and order, military strength, peace, opportunity, merit. In the name of any one of these unexceptionable goals or virtues the administration will say, as all administrations do, that it is pursuing this or that particular policy or asking for or cutting out these or those funds.
Naturally there is rarely any evidence that an administration's action, whatever it is, will lead to any of these ideal states, and there is occasionally evidence that it is actually leading away from them. In that sense they may be as empty as mirage-words. But they differ from them in important respects. Terms of grandeur are generalities that don't pretend to be actual courses of action or alternatives.
As one who has, over the years, greatly depended on some of these mirage-terms to get out of a tight place in a quarrel or, more often, because I could think of nothing else to recommend, I consider myself something of an authority on them. They come basically in two forms: one procedural, the other substantive, sort of.
A few years ago the big procedural favorite was "priorities." Politicians of every stripe would savage some other politician's budget or bill and, in closing, say in the most portentous way possible only this: "It's all a matter of establishing priorities." This could be counted on for a round of heartfelt applause, even though you usually didn't hear exactly what the speaker's priorities were in dollars-and-cents terms, only that he was for priorities. In the mid-1980s I find myself and everyone else in the political world to have abandoned the call for the establishment of priorities in favor of a call for people to make "hard choices." I do not feel, once I have made this demand, that I need exactly to say what those choices should be.
The perennial procedural favorite is, of course, the NQF, otherwise known as the no-quick-fix solution. When one political figure or writer doesn't care for the course another is pursuing, he doesn't have to say what he would do instead -- always a risky business. In order to get people to nod their heads in grave accord with his wisdom, he needs only to warn -- and this will be the sum total of his policy -- that there "are no quick fixes." Actually there probably are some quick fixes. But that is not the point. The point is that merely to say this spares you from having to come up with a suitable slow fix. The closest anyone has ever come to saying what a slow fix would be is to invoke that other well-known mirage-term "restructuring." There is always "a need to restructure."
Of the several substantive mirage-terms currently doing heavy duty, as distinct from the procedural ones, I would say that the three most important are: Contadora process, Camp David accords and Charles Murray. The Contadora process, which alludes to the benign, if slow-paced, efforts of several Latin countries to help resolve the bloody disputes in Central America, is regularly invoked as a solution to all that turmoil rather than merely as one bunch of people who may or may not be able to do much about it. Camp David is invoked as if the conflict it necessarily left unresolved between Israel and its Arab neighbors had somehow been settled in the accords so that little more than a simple following of the road map were needed now.
"Charles Murray" is the most fashionable of these terms at the moment. It refers to the man who wrote the book arguing that the social programs designed to improve the condition of poor blacks over the past two decades have failed and actually harmed their would-be beneficiaries. The book's thesis and its figures have been questioned, but its acceptance has been wide and its effect profound. No matter what kind of government effort you may argue for these days in this area, and no matter what obligation, be it ever so modest, you may say the government should assume, you are likely to be "Charles Murrayed," and that will be the end of the argument. The simple invocation of the book's existence will be taken as an answer to the question, even as an implied "policy choice."
We are endlessly inventive in finding ways to evade the reality of what we are talking about. Too bad we can't put some of that inventiveness to use.