George Orwell long ago speculated on the corrupting effects of dictatorship on the Russian, Italian and German languages. When political speech and writing are constructed to defend the indefensible, he wrote, words and their meanings deteriorate, as do our understanding and use of them. Seven years of the Clinton-Gore administration have similarly corrupted our own political speech and writing, stripping words of their sense, obscuring the bearings of truth itself. The most obvious examples from Bill Clinton’s “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” to Al Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” will stand as an unintended legacy of the Clinton-Gore years, outrageous linguistic contrivances designed to mask and obscure multiple misdeeds.
Its deterioration unchecked, the language now becomes further debased in the service of Al Gore’s presidential ambitions. As the countdown to today’s New Hampshire primary proceeded, Democratic contender Bill Bradley was finally emboldened enough to mention the Clinton-Gore administration’s more egregious acts of corruption calling, for example, on the vice president to explain his role in the infamous 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple and to highlight Mr. Gore’s efforts to obscure his anti-abortion Senate record, the vice president and his supporters have responded with a breathtaking campaign of unctuous misdirection and slanderous brush-offs, and, in so doing, displayed an almost acrobatic fluency in Clinton-Gore doublespeak.
First, there was the downright Orwellian statement passed out at a Gore rally in Somersworth, N.H., over the weekend by Gore supporters. Issued by the Democratic minority leaders in Congress, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the statement directed, oddly, at Mr. Bradley read more than a little like a plea for silence, a.k.a. omerta, as devotees of “The Sopranos” (or John Gotti) will recognize. “We urge that Senator Bradley’s campaign remain focused on the issues,” the statement said, “and that he abandon negative, personal attacks that do not bring credit to this nomination contest or to the Democratic Party.” (Outside the rally, Bradley supporters Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York were heckled and splashed with dirty slush. “Asked about the ugly scene,” the New York Post reported, “Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane replied: ‘First Amendment. They [the hecklers] have the right to say what they want.’ “)
Mr. Gore denounced his opponent for engaging in “divisive, manipulative attacks.” Get it? Not only is it “negative” and “personal” to ask, finally, obvious and urgent questions of a man who seeks the presidency, it is also “divisive” and “manipulative.” So many words, such twisted meanings.
Mr. Gore continued, spinning Mr. Bradley’s challenge into a nefarious, tactical blunder: “Why did Senator Bradley raise this issue to divide Democrats, which only helps Republicans, who are the true impediments to campaign finance reform?” The truth is, Mr. Gore brooks no criticism; indeed, he holds that any criticism of himself is criticism of the Democratic Party. (Le Democratic Party, c’est moi.) Sputters aside, the vice president should be reminded that primary season is precisely the time in the democratic calendar when candidates seek to “divide” their party in hopes of winning the lion’s share of the votes. As for Republicans being the true campaign-reform “impediments,” without even mentioning the Lincoln bedroom, the Chinese military, or even one Buddhist monk, let’s just say that there’s no controlling legal authority for the vice president’s statement.
Then Mr. Gore turned to Mr. Bradley’s point about his record as a onetime opponent of abortion. By raising the question, Mr. Gore said, Mr. Bradley was dividing abortion rights forces “for the sake of his own political tactics.” Needless to say, the vice president didn’t bother with the charge. According to Mr. Gore, by disputing his troubling evasions it was not until Saturday that the vice president finally admitted “my position has changed” Mr. Bradley was doing far worse than dissembling: He was dividing abortion-rights voters for ruthless ends. Mr. Gore, it seems, will say anything so long as it discredits dissent and stifles the truth. Today, in New Hampshire, we’ll see whether voters take him at his word.