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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Words from the White House’
Paul Dickson, a noted author, commentator and lexicographer, warms up the audience by opening this entertaining and informative book with a list of 44 presidential firsts, in no real way related to the subject of presidential neologisms or phrases, but guaranteed to grab our attention.
A sampling: James Buchanan, first and only president who never married; Ulysses S. Grant, first president to view the Pacific Ocean; James Garfield, first left-handed president; William McKinley, first to ride in an automobile; Herbert Hoover, first president to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and Harry S. Truman, first president to ride in a submarine.
The book’s main attractions, though, arranged alphabetically, are the words and phrases coined by presidents, their speechwriters, advisers and people associated with them.
“Instant analysis,” writes Mr. Dickson, “is a term coined by Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1969 to refer to the practice of summarizing and commenting on an important White House speech immediately after the speaker has gone off the air.” That speech, many believed, given in Des Moines, Iowa, resulted in media efforts to try for some measure of objectivity and include conservative views in their commentaries. Although Mr. Dickson doesn’t identify the author, the speech was written by Pat Buchanan, who, with William Safire, would write for Agnew through the 1970 congressional campaign.
Among other Agnewisms are the characterizations of liberals and Democrats as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “vicars of vacillation,” all of which Mr. Dickson identifies as the creations of Safire, although he doesn’t include “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” Agnew’s own formulation, of which he was very proud.
“Instant President” belongs to Gerald R. Ford, coined after he succeeded Richard M. Nixon without being elected: “I was America’s first instant vice president — and now, America’s first instant president.”
“Legalized larceny” comes from Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural address, discussing the collection of any taxes not absolutely necessary; and “lunatic fringe,” was coined by Theodore Roosevelt in his review of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art. As the former president put it, “In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.”
“Misunderestimate” was used by George W. Bush in a speech in Bentonville, Ark.: “They misunderestimated me.” British author and journalist Phillip Hensher, writes Mr. Dickson, called it one of the “most memorable additions to the language and incidentally an expressive one we rather needed a word for ‘to underestimate by mistake.’”
Mr. Bush pointed out that, like Thomas Jefferson (well represented in these pages), he liked to experiment with new words. Writing in The Washington Times in 2010 and quoted here by Mr. Dickson, reporter Jennifer Harper put it this way: “‘All that endless mean talk about Bushisms from media elites and academics? Seems like his critics misunderestimated [him]. His memoir ‘Decision Points’ has sold 2 million copies since it was released in November; the book is not even in paperback yet.’”
“One-pager” is a phrase defined by political strategist and former Nixon aide and adviser Bill Timmons as a piece of paper containing all available information on any given issue. According to Mr. Timmons, it was coined when Nixon handed Henry Kissinger two pages and told him. “’Henry, I want this on one page.’ Mr. Kissinger turned to a secretary and said, ‘Retype this on one page.’ “
“Wee-weed up” is what Mr. Dickson calls “a coarse neologism,” coined by President Obama in the summer of 2009: “There’s something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up. I don’t know what it is. But that’s what happens.”
In all, this is just a sampling of what Mr. Dickson provides, but there are plenty of political aficionados, neologists, phrase-makers, speechwriters, bloviators and muckrakers, as well as people caring deeply about language and the way it’s used and misused, who will be reassured that so many of our presidents have had the wit and imagination to use it to good effect.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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