Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic and a former Washington Post staff writer. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell.”
There is a rhetorical infestation loose in Washington, and left untreated, it will devour what little remains of honest communication in the nation’s capital.
It is the f-word. No, not that one. The other one — the one that, in either its adjectival or adverbial variations, seems to adorn ever more political pronouncements.
There it was in April when President Obama lamented the lack of progress in the Middle East peace talks: “So far we have seen some movement on both sides to acknowledge that this is a crisis long-running that needs to be solved. What we haven’t seen is frankly the kind of political will to actually make tough decisions.”
There it was when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made his case for an interventionist U.S. foreign policy at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March: “Quite frankly, we would much rather just focus on our lives here. But we cannot ignore the reality of who we are.”
And when Hillary Rodham Clinton fended off questions about the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya: “There are answers — not all of them, not enough, frankly,” she told a CNN town-hall audience in June.
And we heard it when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chided then-Secretary of State Clinton for her January 2013 testimony on the Benghazi attacks: “There are many questions that are unanswered. And the answers, frankly, that you’ve given this morning are not satisfactory to me.”
Frankly. To be frank. In all frankness. In whatever form, the word is meant to imply that the speaker is letting down his or her guard, letting you in on the real deal, even if it is not entirely helpful to the speaker or the speaker’s interests to be doing so. As my Webster’s dictionary puts it, “ ‘Frank’ stresses lack of shyness or secretiveness or of evasiveness from considerations of tact or expedience.”
Think of the word’s most famous uttering: Rhett Butler’s valedictory line to Scarlett O’Hara after she weepingly pleads: “If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” Rhett answers, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” This is the classic usage, delivering a jolt of true revelation that leaves Scarlett stunned on the threshold of their home as he strides into the night.
Increasingly, though, the word’s promise of candid revelation is a hollow one. Instead, it has become merely a way to accentuate an opinion that costs the speaker nothing — the word is deployed not to signal that the speaker is veering off-message but to pad the message itself.
Even in ordinary use, far from Congress or Washington television studios, it has taken on an unpleasant resonance, imbuing a tinge of self-importance and knowingness to pronouncements of the Facebook and Twitter age, when everyone’s an insider. “Frankly, I don’t think this season of ‘Girls’ is as good as last year’s.” “To be perfectly frank, I’m not sure the food there is worth the wait.”
But in Washington the word is even more irksome, combining the puffery of its common use with the disingenuousness of the politician’s claim to forthrightness. Take a few examples from the president, who has shown the capacity for true candor but for whom the f-word is usually a telltale sign that he’s in fully canned mode.
Here was Obama in May 2012 attributing his evolution on same-sex marriage partly to his daughters: “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And — and frankly — that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective.” There was nothing inexpedient about this frankness: It was entirely in Obama’s interest to attribute his blatantly calculated shift on same-sex marriage to the cross-generational wisdom of his daughters. It made him seem thoughtful and open-minded — a dad listening to his kids at the dinner table, rather than a politician safely coming around on an issue only after much of the country passed him by on it.
And here was Obama making his case for his reelection later the same year: “This election will determine our economic future for the next generation,” he said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July. “And, frankly, the choice could not be clearer.” The only thing that could possibly have made that line truly frank was if he had proclaimed that the choice was not clear.
The 2012 campaign offered plenty of other examples, as when Mitt Romney declared that the comments by Missouri Republican and then-Senate candidate Todd Akin about “legitimate rape” were “insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong.” Romney needed badly to separate himself from Akin; there was nothing frank in declaring him mistaken.
And a couple of weeks earlier, House Speaker John Boehner had this to say: “Listen, President Obama said that small-business tax hikes threaten our economy. Frankly, the Democrats’ ‘sequester’ threatens our national security.” Here, the word is pure partisan amplifier: Boehner might as well have substituted “give me a break” or “oh, yeah?”
The misuse has even crept into court decisions. When two Republican-appointed judges on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a July ruling in favor of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, they wrote that they had come down against the law “frankly, with reluctance.” This seemed hard to believe, given that at oral arguments, the judges had barely been able to conceal their scorn for the law — at one point, one of them, Judge Raymond Randolph, declared, “If the legislation is just stupid, it’s not up to the court to save it.” That doesn’t sound like someone terribly “reluctant” to upend the law.
In its degradation, “frankly” joins a bevy of partisan fillers that have overtaken political rhetoric, such as Obama’s ultimate favorite, “let me be clear,” typically deployed when he is being anything but clear.
It’s possible that this plague is just another manifestation of hyper-polarization. Politicians know that voters hunger for authenticity, so their instinct is to pepper their talk with hints of independence, as if they’re straying from their side’s orthodoxy. But so far apart and so sharply delineated have the sides become that the odds that someone is actually going to wander across, even for a split second, are unlikely.
All of which has rendered the word meaningless. So be warned, Washington: If you’re declaring how you frankly feel, know that from now on, we won’t give a damn.
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