Remember the old Steve Martin joke about the French? “They’ve got a different word for everything!”
So does Washington.
In fact, anyone looking for proof that the capital is becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the country need search no further than inside-the-Beltway lingo.
There will be knowing looks all around this town if you proffer a spin about White House oppo guys who dug up dish and Borked political opponents to counter the right-wing hitmen who are sliming the president.
But does anyone outside of Interstate 495, the multilane Beltway that surrounds this capital city, really know that oppo guys (opposition researchers) are paid to find ugly facts (dig up dish)?
Consider, for instance, “cowboy practices.” Outside Washington, it probably means roping, putting up fences and smoking Marlboros. Inside, it’s a quick reference used to disparage the methods of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
“Washington-speak is … nearly a secret language to the outside,” said Allan Lichtman, who teaches history and politics at American University in the capital. “If you have a secret language, that makes it more difficult for folks to join the club. Beyond that, it’s kind of a shorthand.”
Like POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS. They’re neither a law firm, nor a series of contagious rashes. Instead, they’re quick, importantsounding ways to identify the president of the United States, the first lady of the United States and the Supreme Court of the United States.
Cliches are king in Washington. Insider expressions rule and acronyms and neologisms come to tongue faster than Congress can leave town. For politician and pollster, press flack and bureaucrat, it is the local lingua franca.
Take Borking, something Starr’s supporters say the White House is doing to him. It means attacking someone over political beliefs in an effort to make the person lose a job. It comes from the failed Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, who was besieged by liberal opponents.
People also can get Hatched (an accusation based on the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in political activities), or they might, if they’re lucky, “burrow in” (the mysterious process by which political appointees become career civil service employees after a change in parties and administration).
Despite the wintry weather here, there’s lots of talk these days about iced tea. (For outsiders, that’s ISTEA - short for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.)
Washington also is where the president may be wheels up (his plane takes off) or wheels down (his plane has landed), where hard money (donations to candidates) and soft money (donations to parties) have no connection to coinage or currency, and where the Astroturf (phony grass-roots political activities) has never seen the inside of a stadium.
Even the voluble and ubiquitous William Ginsburg, attorney to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, said: “I came here somewhat as an ingenue. … I learned new words, like ‘parse.’ Everything I have said has been parsed.”
For that, he can thank White House spokesman Michael McCurry, who said he would not “parse” (break down into parts of speech) the president’s remarks about his relationship with Lewinsky. Suddenly, a word used primarily by sixth-grade English teachers gained immortality.
Scandals will do that. Just look at how the word “gate” gained new political life as a suffix. Or how stonewall and bunker became part of the political vernacular. But scandal-mania see how easy it is?) is not the only reason.
“A lot of what public officials spend their time doing is talking to each other,” said David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for President Clinton. “Where they get into trouble is when they start talking jargon to ordinary citizens.”
He recalled when former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was campaigning as the Republican nominee for president in 1996 and told a California audience why he favored a referendum against affirmative action. Whether he meant to be so candid, Dole explained that it was a “wedge issue” (divides people for political reasons) and that “swing voters” (receptive to both Democratic and Republican appeals) cared about it, Kusnet said.
It’s an example of why GOP pollster Frank Luntz has advised the Republican members of Congress to “Stop the references to inside-the-Beltway words and programs. When you board the plane at National Airport, leave it all behind. Your constituents don’t talk like this, and neither should you.”
Easier said than done.
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