Press Secretary Jay Carney had been known to turn a phrase or two during his day as a White House correspondent at Time magazine. So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise to his former brethren when Carney spiced up an otherwise predictable attack against President Obama’s Republican rivals with a rhetorical flourish.
“Pick your metaphor,” Carney said at his daily briefing Thursday while dismissing a GOP proposal for a payroll tax cut as a showy, but ultimately shallow alternative to Obama’s plan. “Window dressing or gorilla dust.”
Gorilla dust? Say what?
No one stopped Carney to ask what he meant, but afterward several of the seasoned wordsmiths in the press room agreed they had never before heard the evocative phrase.
Seems they weren’t alone: A Lexis-Nexis search of newspaper archives turned up the phrase in a combined total of just 16 stories in the history of the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The single Post mention came in 1986.
Google wasn’t that much more helpful. Searching for the phrase turned up only a handful of links that offered plausible definitions. Others were less plausible: The Urban Dictionary, the online clearinghouse of street slang, offers only one guess at a definition: “crumbs that fall off of the food that you are eating and get all over your friends’ furniture or upholstery.”
That’s not exactly right, it turns out.
“It’s a rich and appropriate phrase,” Carney insisted when we followed up with him on the matter after the press briefing.
Carney said he picked up the phrase as a cub reporter in Time’s Washington bureau in the early 1990s.
“An old bureau chief used to use it,” Carey recalled. “When I got to Washington in ‘93, early on in my time there, it was a phrase that I heard used by colleagues.”
“I don’t think I ever used it in writing that I can remember. My memory is a little hazy,” Carney continued. “I’m all for the use of vivid language.”
Carney’s bureau chief was Dan Goodgame, now 56, who retired from full-time journalism in 2008 and now works as head of communications for a cloud computing company in San Antonio.
Goodgame chuckled when we contacted him at a home Thursday evening in Connecticut where he spends some time with his wife. Yes, he acknowledged, he is the one who used “gorilla dust” as a sort-of catch phrase around the magazine’s offices.
And where did Goodgame pick it up?
“Ross Perot used to use it,” Goodgame said. “It was Ross. I wish I could claim it. I love to do Ross Perot impressions. I can’t remember if we ever used it other than quoting Perot. It became bureau slang.”
These days, Goodgame uses it less frequently, but sometimes says it to his kids: “They understand it. I always do it in a Ross Perot style.”
Indeed, Perot used the term in a 1993 televised debate with Vice President Al Gore on the North America Free Trade Agreement: “See, again, he throws up propaganda. He throws gorilla dust. It makes no sense.”
In a transcript of the debate, the Federal News Service, a private company, spelled it “guerrilla dust,” according to a Dec. 5, 1993, column on language by William Safire in the New York Times.
Safire wrote that during an appearance to plug a book on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show he “wondered aloud” about the meaning of Perot’s phrase.
“Sure enough, an insomniac named Randall Ravitz of Livingston, N.J., supplied this zoological data,” Safire wrote. “‘When a gorilla (not guerrilla) feels threatened and is forced to assume a defensive posture, it will throw up dust or dirt in order to distract or blind its opponent.’”
And so this is what Carney meant about the GOP strategy on the payroll tax debate.
“We need to inject the phrase more fully into the current vernacular,” Carney suggested.
To borrow another phrase from Team Obama, we can’t wait.