“Don’t use words too big for the subject,” C.S. Lewis wrote to a young fan and aspiring writer in Florida. “Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
In our hyper-politicized world of sound bites, three-minute television appearances, and 140-character tweets, public figures, political commentators, and journalists naturally develop a shorthand of political language. This shorthand communicates meaning in small, digestible packets that fit neatly onto a four-inch smartphone screen or within the time constraints of a hard break on network television. The electronic arena of our political discourse has broadened people’s access to public affairs, but the necessity to communicate vast meaning in a short time span has not necessarily helped broaden the public’s intellect or, for that matter, attention span for politics.
Consider the “-gates.” This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the culmination of the Watergate affair, when President Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face certain impeachment by the House of Representatives. Since then, the American public has fallen victim to lazy journalists and political opportunists who label any potentially crippling scandal with the “-gate” sobriquet: Iran-gate, Nanny-gate, Weiner-gate, Camila-gate, Billy-gate, Travel-gate, Bridge-gate… and the list goes on. In fact, Wikipedia lists dozens of other “–gate” scandals, presumably all involving some sort of crime, misconduct, or the resulting cover up thereof.
However, headline writers for the New York Post know how to communicate the largest amount of information in the smallest space possible. Call something a “-gate,” and your mind conjures up the final images of a disgraced and ruined man resigning the presidency, an instant page turner for tabloids everywhere. With more “-gates” than the starting line at Churchill Downs, President Obama has himself fallen victim to this treatment and has been shorthanded as “the worst president ever” by many of his critics, political opponents and disgruntled Americans voters.
An old, wise professor of English grammar once told me the simplest of lessons about the Mother Tongue involve what amounts to the shorthand-ing of our language: over time, for better or for worse, the English language compresses on itself. “Cannot” becomes “can’t,” “hello” somehow becomes “yo,” and all of those “haths,” “thous” and “thees” of the King James Bible (thankfully) disappear altogether.
Putting aside one’s taste for traditional language in liturgy or interest in learning the vocabulary of the Jersey shore, understanding the danger of language compression is a crucial component to winning political arguments. Mark Morford, a columnist and culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate.com, exemplifies just why it is word choice when it comes to criticizing President Obama matters.
Reporting on a conversation he overheard at a swanky California restaurant, Morford explains why, in his view, the “wealthy” gentleman at the table seated next to him got it wrong when he proclaimed that Mr. Obama is “the worst president ever.” Predictably, Morford launched into a litany of carefully spun arguments about why Obama was not the worst president ever and instead why President Bush was. Much of his argument rested on the perceived wealth of the Obama critic, and the usual claptrap of “Bush lied, people died.” Morford also engaged the classic “A – B” debate: it’s not A, it’s B.
Political debates ought to be more nuanced than this, and it is time President Obama’s critics stop giving his supporters rhetorical cover by setting up a false “either-or” argument. The Obama critic of Morford’s story opened the door to an Obama supporter’s partisan retelling of recent history by using the superlative “worst” and by speaking from a tenuous historical position. Morford merely walked through this open door, as any of us would have in his position. Unfortunately, this type of discourse also adds to the atmosphere of partisanship and gridlock: the ball never seems to move down the field in either direction, and instead languishes in the boring ten yards on either side of the midfield line.
The readers of this site will easily observe that neither my colleagues nor I are by any means supporters of President Obama. However, it would be hard for any of us to make the case that Mr. Obama is worse than President James Buchanan, who allowed the union to disintegrate on his watch without taking any decisive action to prevent the secession of the southern states in late 1860. Perhaps, then, Mr. Obama is a close “second-to-worst president ever?”
The real problem with political shorthand is that it distracts from countless valid arguments as to why the president is preforming poorly on the job. Instead, political shorthand creates straw man arguments for the opposition to light on fire with their tired, worn out, and hackneyed anti-Bush rhetoric. The argument about President Obama should not be a historical one, as “the worst president ever” moniker engenders by inviting people to offer their own opinions about George Bush, Herbert Hoover, or James Polk. Engaging someone about President Obama should be a political argument, centered in current events and replete with facts to prove one’s point. It would be almost impossible for two people who have differing political ideologies to agree on their favorite or least favorite president of all time. The argument would be fun or perhaps even intellectually stimulating over a game of darts or billiards, but it wouldn’t be settled before last call.
If you’re looking to win an argument about President Obama’s job performance, the “worst president ever” label is probably a great way to lose. Instead, list his failures in specific detail. Fast and Furious, the Affordable Care Act, immigration, or the “reset” with Russia will get you started.
Recently on the Sean Hannity Show, Fox News analyst Lt. Col. Ralph Peters proclaimed that President Obama is, in relation to foreign policy, “the worst president ever.” On the friendly territory of Hannity’s show, Peters had a venue in which he could explain his point in detail, highlighting such flash points as North Korea, Libya, Central America and even the situation our own southwest border. For the majority of us, such venues aren’t always readily available. Rather than getting bogged down in an unimportant discussion of who ranks among the worst presidents ever, it is best to have two or three specific facts about President Obama’s failures teed up and ready to go the next time you engage a political foe.
Besides, at this rate it would also be wise to take C.S. Lewis’ advice. It seems as if President Obama is finding new ways to be worse at being president than he was the day before. Give him some room to grow into his inevitable title of “the worst president ever,” or else we will run out of bigger words to describe how truly bad his job performance will become.