Questions for William Safire
Amazon.com: What was your purpose in writing Safire's Political Dictionary? What do you hope that readers will gain from exploring the shallows and depths of American political vocabulary?
Safire: This is a language that can inspire or inflame. Goal number one is to help anyone watching or listening to the cut and thrust of political debate to catch the hidden nuances--the code words and dog-whistle politics that manipulate emotions. Goal Two: to provide readers with accurate, anecdotal definitions of earmark, murder board, robo call, slow-walk. The deepest purpose of this longterm love of my literary life (see alliteration) is to allow the voter to experience and enjoy the historical resonance of the latest slogans, the roots of our awful smears, the thoughtful talking pointsand stirring hoopla.
Amazon.com: Striped-pants diplomacy, lame duck, salami tactics, stalking horse, bedsheet ballot, and hail of dead cats. Why does the sphere of politics seem to produce some of the most robust and colorful language? You've even added a new term to our lexicon for political language: "polingo". Or is there also something particular about American English that lends itself to inventive turns of phrase, neologisms and catchy clichés?
Safire: A would-be leader or political journalist has to seize our attention with word-pictures that uplift or infuriate. "Leaving under a cloud" cant compare with the metaphor of "in a hail of dead cats". American English delights in the transfer of sports terms to politics: that stalking horse is brother to the party wheelhorse as pols engage in horse-trading--but that dark horse can bolt and the front-runner may not be a shoo-in. (I learned that last word from a racetrack cop: when a group of corrupt jockeys form a pool to wager on a long shot, they hold back their mounts and "shoo in" the nag they bet on, which is why the term in politics means "sure winner".)
American presidents and their writers reach for those memorable metaphors. Lincoln, the best presidential writer, took a militant phrase suggested to him on the eve of Civil War--"the guardian angel of our nation"--and seeking to conciliate the South, changed it to "the better angels of our nature". When you know that, as I discovered when researching this book, you better appreciate the subtlety and poetry of his First Inaugural.
Amazon.com: Do you think it possible to write a truly objective political dictionary? Or did you find yourself imposing checks and balances?
Safire: Of course its possible if youre willing to knock yourself out to be bipartisan. Not nonpartisan, which is colorless, nor partisan, which is slanted, and not even postpartisan, which I slipped in at the last moment before the Oxford printer snatched my final draft--a nice coinage taking over from above politics and is being applied to the Obama campaign.
I was for three decades a lonely writer on the right on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and in this dictionary, whenever modesty afflicts me, I cite as a source "a vituperative right-wing scandalmonger", a sort of nom de plume. However, in this determinedly down-the-middle dictionary, for every bleeding heart, knee-jerk, double-domed liberal, there is a mossback, troglodyte, hidebound conservative, as well as a contingent of me-too, mainstream, opportunist centrists.
Even within some entries, the reader will find colorful antonyms: the scholarly etymology of moonbat, born as an epithet hooting at leftists in 1999 and popularized two years later on the libertarian website Samizdata, gets fair and balanced treatment by my straight-faced analysis of wingnut, an updating of the 1960s"right-wing nut" used in a 1999 interview with website muckraker Matt Drudge.
Amazon.com: Which politicians were the most enjoyable to research and write about for this new edition? Have any documents or speech recordings come to light that significantly changed your perception of a particular historical figure or period since you last revised the dictionary back in 1993?
Safire: In the past century, nobody tops the two Roosevelts for colorful and historic coinages. President Theodore Roosevelt minted bully pulpit and big stick, still in active use today, swung lunatic fringe from the fashion world to politics and borrowed boxing's hat in the ring; Teddy also popularized weasel words, pussyfooting, parlor pink and mollycoddle. FDR more than matched his cousin: arsenal of democracy, four freedoms, rendezvous with destiny (based on the poet Alan Seeger's "rendezvous with death") were only the beginning; because I had the chance to interview FDR speechwriters Samuel Rosenman and Raymond Moley forty years ago, readers today can get some insight into the origins of New Deal, nothing to fear but fear itself, and day of infamy. (Speechwriters, even those of us with a passion for anonymity, dont always agree on credit.)
Say what you like about Nixon (silent majority, lift of a driving dream, workfare) but the Watergate scandal that ended his administration spawned the Golden Age of Political Coinage: cover-up, Deep Throat, deep-six, enemies list, firestorm, plumbers, smoking gun, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind--the list goes on and the phrases are in current use.
Reagan gave us evil empire, make my day, morning in America, there you go again and was slammed with sleaze factor and amiable dunce). The elder Bush had read my lips, line in the sand, thousand points of light, kinder and gentler nation and was hit with wimp factor, out of the loop and voodoo economics.
Bill Clinton had Comeback Kid, triangulation, war room and was attacked with Hillarycare, Whitewater, and the lingo of Monicagate. The younger Bush --- Dubya--started with compassionate conservative, faith-based, and the soft bigotry of low expectations but was soon embroiled in the war on terror, axis of evil, regime change, freedom agenda, misunderestimate, stay the course, and surge.
In answer to your question, I enjoyed it all.
Amazon.com: Out of nearly 550,000 words, do you have any particular favorites? Is there a word or phrase from the first edition, published forty years ago, that has regrettably fallen out of favor, but really merits resurrection?
Safire: I get a kick out of the proverbs of politics and present my collection of about fifty of them with pride. The older ones include Woodrow Wilson's Never murder a man who's committing suicide. And I found the origin to Fiorello LaGuardia's Ticker tape aint spaghetti. But here are a couple with follow-up kickers: Don't get mad, get even was attributed to the Kennedy clan, but its corollary is more profound: Don't get mad, don't get even, just get elected--THEN get even. Attributed to Harry Truman is the uncharacteristically cynical If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog. Its recent corollary, by Don Rumsfeld and revealed in this dictionary, is Better make it a small dog, because it may turn on you also.
Lost phrases? We live in an era of frenetic activity, which is too often is a substitute for steady action. In the 18th century, Sir James Mackintosh, famed for disciplined inaction, topped himself with masterly inactivity. In our time, George Shultz, Reagans Treasury Secretary, gave that a modern imperative: Dont just do something, stand there..
Amazon.com: You call this dictionary your "labor of love." How do you feel about passing the baton off to a new editor when it comes time to work on the next edition?
Safire: A political lexicographer gets a secret thrill out of discovering the origin of a phrase that, but for his digging, might disappear into the mists of Newsweek. Sometimes you just stumble across it like one of the princes of Serendip: an example is selling candidates like soap, which never had a demonstrable printed "attestation". But looking for the origin of Oval Office, I stumbled across it in the Times archives: put forward by a supporter of a general for president in 1920. Col. William Proctor, scion of the Ivory Soap family, was the demonstrable coiner. A minor triumph, but mine own.
More important to this work was the result of a "fishhook"--a query placed in my Times Magazine "On Language" column for the coiner of "Social Security is the third rail of American politics--touch it and you die." Henry Hubbard of Newsweek and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe agreed on the anonymous source: the late Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker Tip O'Neill, who used it to both journalists in 1984. Whew! The coiner's widow sent me a lovely, sentimental letter of thanks, which I suppose has no place in a dictionary, but I put it in anyway because my name is in this dictionary's title.
I hope the editor of the 2018 edition of this hefty volume is making notes about the election of '08, parsing Barack Obama's speeches ("Fired up! Ready to go!") and Hillary Clinton's debate ripostes and John McCain's adoption of FDR's warm my friends as his salutation. This work, like the language it covers, is great fun and never finished.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Library Journal
- Louise Stwalley, Univ. of Colorado at Denver Lib.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.