Political catchwords: linguistic maps that shape politics and governance.
The use of political catchwords by politicians and the press is not meant to promote analytic thinki...
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Political catchwords: linguistic maps that shape politics and governance.
Political catchwords: linguistic maps that shape politics and
The use of political catchwords by politicians and the press is not meant to promote analytic
thinking, detached reasoning, and balanced judgment. Such tags are intended rather to gin up
support, blast one's opponents, and influence public opinion. That has been their use since days of
yore and that is certainly how they have been used in American politics. This article examines the
use of political catchwords from the FDR era through the administration of George W. Bush. Such
study is important because political catchwords have played an essential and oftentimes pivotal role
in American politics by persuading the populace to support policies and strategies advocated by
public office seekers and elected officials. (1) Political catchwords have helped shape the landscape
of what gets done electorally and governmentally in America.
Presidential Catchwords: From FDR to GWB
The FDR Era
Franklin D. Roosevelt's acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic convention contained the
following sentence: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."
During the week of FDR's speech, Stuart Chase, the author of the best-selling-GS-popularization The
Tyranny of Words and a highly regarded economist, published a cover story for The New Republic
titled "A New Deal for America."
The phrase "new deal" quickly caught on with the Depression-plagued public, helping Roosevelt to
push a series of economic programs through Congress between 1933 and 1936.
The expression arsenal of democracy was coined by Jean Monnet, French Ambassador to the United
States, in a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who told Monnet that FDR
could make good use of it. Frankfurter's prediction came true when FDR told the nation in a radio
broadcast on December 29, 1940, that we must be the great arsenal of democracy. That stirring
elocution helped gain popular support to provide weapons to the Allies, and to a lesser extent China,
in their war against the Axis Powers. America's military-industrial complex (an Eisenhower-era
coinage) has since gone on to become the number one supplier of arms to nations throughout the
In the early part of the twentieth century, exhortations such as colossus of the north, Yankee
imperialists, and dollar diplomacy were common in Central and South America to show resentment
of big brother America. In his first inaugural address, FDR tried to counter such sentiments, saying,
"In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor--the
neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.
The Good Neighbor Policy resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Haiti and Nicaragua in
1934, the annulment of the Platt Amendment, and the negotiation of compensation for Mexico's
nationalization of foreign assets in the oil industry in 1938. After World War II, however, the United
States became more of an intrusive neighbor in Latin America, with the CIA being involved in the
overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, the Kennedy administration's failed Bay of Pigs
invasion in 1961, and the U.S. attack on Panama in 1989.
Other FDR-era catchwords includefiur freedoms, day of infamy, nothing to fear but fear itself
.fireside chat, and iffy question.
The Truman Era Building on FDR's New Deal, Harry S. Truman's first message to the eighty-first
Congress proclaimed "Every segment of our population and every individual has a right to expect
from his government a fair deal."
The press embraced that slogan, using it to label the domestic policies of his administration.
Previously, Teddy Roosevelt had employed the term square deal to describe his domestic program.
Do-Nothing Congress is a phrase associated with President Truman, who utilized the compound
adjective in his presidential campaigning across the United States in 1948. Audiences responded
well to his assaults on "the good-for-nothing, do nothing, Taft-Hartley 80th Congress" and the "worst
Congress" ever. His strategy of a vigorous and unexpected offense gave Truman, who kept a sign on
his desk with the words the buck stops here, the most dramatic, upset victory in modern presidential
Other Truman-era catchwords include give 'em hell, Harry and red herring.
The Eisenhower Era
On January 12, 1954, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles said, "Local defense must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory
In press coverage, the last three words were changed to massive retaliation, the concept being that
conventional defenses against conventional attacks would be backed up with possible massive
retaliatory attacks involving nuclear weapons. The notion of massive retaliation presaged a strategy
that resulted in generations of long-range bombers, atomic submarines, and nuclear missiles.
In a news conference on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower employed the metaphor of a falling row
of dominoes to explain why he thought the United States had to offer "Congress" and the "worst
Congress" ever. His strategy of a vigorous economic aid to South Vietnam. The idea was that if the
first domino (South Vietnam) fell, then other countries in the region would soon follow. The domino
theory was a descriptor of the situation and conditions within Southeast Asia at the time, and
Eisenhower did not propose a generalized domino theory. Other analysts and administrations would
do that afterward.
During the 1956 presidential campaign, Adlai Stevenson accused the Eisenhower Administration of
brinkmanship--a national security policy that involves risking large-scale war to impose adversarial
acquiescence. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke about the importance of going to the
brink ("the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war...") in an article he had published
in Lift magazine (January 16, 1956). The British intellectual Bertrand Russell compared nuclear
brinkmanship to the game of chicken, which may have stirred several hawkish Goldwater supporters
at the 1964 Republican Convention to wave signs that read "Better brinkmanship than chickenship."
Other Eisenhower-era catchwords include atoms for peace, modern Republicanism, open skies
proposal, and agonizing reappraisal.
The Kennedy Era
During the 1960 presidential campaign. JFK claimed U.S. missile manufacture lagged behind Soviet
production, calling it a missile gap. That the Republicans were "weak on defense" helped Kennedy
gain office. Once in power, he dismissed the missile gap allegation as nonexistent.
Looking for a successor label to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, JFK advanced one that had been
employed by 1936-Republican-presidential-candidate Alf Landon: the New Frontier. The term was
designed to symbolize the spirit of exploration and vigor that Kennedy wanted to bring to his
presidency and inspire Americans to move forcefully into the new decade for the new frontier is here
whether we seek it or not. The precise impact of President Kennedy's New Frontier is hard to
discern, as many of his ideas and proposals were still being studied when he was killed in Dallas.
In his 1961 inaugural address, JFK spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens,
famously saying ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. The
ask not what your country can do for you line may have been modeled on words delivered at a
Memorial Day address in 1884 by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "it is now the moment ... to recall what
our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return."
Other Kennedy-era catchwords include Alliance for Progress, 1 am a Berliner, the torch has been
passed, victory has a hundred fathers, and profiles in courage.
The Johnson Era
When LBJ assumed the presidency, he initiated a series of liberal reforms to parallel the New Deal.
He used the maxim Better Deal in some of his early speeches, but the expression did not catch on.
He officially launched the term Great Society at the University of Michigan in a commencement
address given on May 22, 1964. He promised "an end to poverty and racial injustice" and "a place
where man can renew contact with nature." The Great Society enjoyed some successes, but in the
end, Johnson's vision proved too utopian.
The term War on Poverty was LBJ's descriptor for his domestic social welfare program. Later, many
programs became "wars." During the LBJ era, there was a war on crime and war on ignorance.
Nixon announced a war on cancer and Reagan proclaimed a war on drugs. To date, no politician has
declared a war to end wars.
Other Johnson-era catchwords include creative federalism, Nervous Nellies, no wider war, that dog
won't hunt, let us continue, and chronic campaigner.
Pre-Watergate Nixon Era
Vietnamization was a Nixon plan for the disengagement of American ground forces from Vietnam,
with the concurrent buildup of South Vietnamese forces. The predecessor tag, used in the Johnson
era, was the awkward expression de-Americanization. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van
Thieu was not a fan of Vietnamization. He thought it gave support to North Vietnam's charges that
the United States was passing on the fighting https://de.pinterest.com/ to puppet, mercenary
soldiers. In recent times, the terms Iraqi-ization and Afghanistanization (to refer to training,
equipping, and gradually turning over the fighting to indigenous troops and police) have not caught
on with the American public.
Nixon employed the phrase silent majority in a 1969 televised speech to the American public, an
address in which he was trying to buy time for his Vietnarnization policy. The idea behind the
appellation was that the bulk of people who live in America could make history, even though as
individuals their opinions were not interesting or different enough to make the news. In 1972, they
did make history, reelecting President Nixon in a landslide victory to the White House--Nixon won 49
of 50 states. During the congressional races of 1970, Vice President Agnew employed alliteration in
his speeches (pusillanimous pussyfooters, vicars of vacillation, etc.) to encourage reporters to take
notice of them. On September 11, 1970, Agnew put forth particularly potent alliterative patter when
he told attendees to the Californian Republican State Convention,"... nattering nabobs of negativism
... have formed their own 4-H Club--the hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history."
The phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" helped foster among conservatives and the silent
majority an abiding mistrust of the mainstream media that continues today.
Other pre-Watergate Nixon-era catchwords include workfare, Nixon Doctrine, New Federalism,
wilderness years, game plan, black capitalism, and linkage.
The Watergate Nixon Era
The political catchwords produced by the Watergate scandal (1972-1974) are numerous and well
known. The following, which offer a flavor of the times, are but some of them: at this point in time,
big enchilada, cover up, CREEP, Deep Throat, deep-six, dirty tricks, enemies list, executive privilege,
firestorm, gate construction, damage control, hardball, inoperative, laundered money, nobody
drowned in Watergate, not a crook, plumber Saturday Night Massacre, smoking gun, stonewalling,
third-rate burglary, and twisting slowly in the wind.
The Carter Era
President Jimmy Carter used the expression moral equivalent of war in a 1977 address to the nation
in which he asked Americans to be prepared to make sacrifices during the energy crisis. In the news
media, Carter's "Moral Equivalent of War" speech and energy recommendations became known by
their acronym, MEOW. The phrase "moral equivalent of war" may have been borrowed from public
utterances of William James, who used the term in a 1906 address at Stanford University and later in
an essay with that title published in 1910.
Carter condemned the practice of the three-martini lunch during his 1976 presidential campaign. He
portrayed it as part of the unfairness of the nation's tax laws, claiming that the working class was
subsidizing the "$50 martini lunch" (businesspeople could write off this type of meal as a job
expense). After the election, his opponent, incumbent President Gerald R. Ford, in a 1978 speech to
the National Restaurant Association, said the three-martini lunch was the epitome of American
efficiency: "Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same timer?"
Other Carter-era catchwords include born again, lust in his heart, ethnic purity; waste, fraud, and
abuse, and zero-base budgeting.
The Reagan Era
A TV commercial for Ronald Reagan's reelection (formally titled "Prouder, Stronger, Better") showed
sublime American venues--people going to work, a bride in a wedding gown, a child admiring the
flag--along with reminders of low inflation and interest rates and a rousing voiceover that said It's
morning again in America. That refrain worked for Reagan, who won 48 states in the 1984
presidential election. "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" is the name of prominent conservative and
Reagan cabinet member William Bennett's radio talk show, a direct reference to the ad.
Reagan introduced the term evil empire on March 8, 1983, in a talk given to the National
Association of Evangelists Convention in Orlando, Florida. The moniker was meant as a moral attack
on the global corruption of Communism. Criticized as crude and simplistic when made, many now
view the expression "evil empire" as a valid historic judgment.
At the conclusion of his October 28, 1980, televised debate with President Jimmy Carter in
Cleveland, candidate Ronald Reagan said to the audience Are you better olf now than you were Pur
years ago? Heaps of voters answered in the negative, which helped Reagan win the 1980 election.
Twelve years later, with the economy headed into a double-dip recession, Newsweek asked the same
question. The response was 38 percent yes and 58 percent no. That was approximately the vote for
and against President George H.W. Bush.
Other Reagan-era catchwords include city on a hill, .latally flawed, level playing field, make my day,
star wars, stay the course, October surprise, and there you go again.
The George H.W. Bash Era
Vice President George H.W. Bush used the phrase kinder and gentler nation in his 1988 presidential
nomination acceptance speech and in his presidential inaugural address. The wording was meant to
express a vision of a caring and peaceful America. However, some gave the remark a sarcastic twist.
First Lady Nancy Reagan supposedly said, "Kinder and gentler than whom?"
Bush introduced the term a thousand points of light (a metaphor for volunteerism; community
service that costs the taxpayer nothing) in his 1988 presidential campaign. During his presidency,
Bush handed out "Point of Light Awards" six days a week to citizens working to aid their
communities through volunteer work. Dana Carvey frequently used the phrase in his famous
Saturday Night Live impressions of Bush.
In his 1991 State of the Union message, Bush called upon all nations to-fulfill the long-held promise
of a new world order--where brutality will go unrewarded and aggression will meet collective
Earlier uses of "new world order" have been less supportive of global harmony. In his book
Autobiography (1965), Malcolm X commented: "Let us face reality. We can see in the United Nations
a new world order being shaped, along color lines--an alliance among the non-white nations."
Other George H.W. Bush-era catchwords include line in the sand, read my lips, moving
http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/ the goalposts, and like ugly on an ape.
In response to a question about why, in a court hearing related to the Monica Lewinsky case, he had
not corrected his lawyer's statement that said,"There is absolutely no sex of any kind, in any manner,
shape, or form," President Clinton answered: It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.
Some found this esoteric semantic comment symbolic of Clinton's subtle and sometimes shifty use of
language. Others thought the president was doing what he could to avoid being impeached for an
insignificant moral lapse and lying about his sex life.
In the middle of his presidency, Bill Clinton boldly declared that the era of big government is over.
Many Americans didn't believe him and events over the last decade have proved them right.
Inside his "tell-all" memoir Behind the Oval Office (1998), Republican pollster Dick Morris, who
crossed party lines to advise Bill Clinton, wrote that he counseled the president to triangulate (chart
a center course between traditional party positions by co-opting elements of the opposition's
policies). Many observers saw this approach as a strategic sidestep toward the political middle.
Republicans offered it as proof of the president's cynical lack of conviction.
Other Clinton-era catchwords include bubba factor, Comeback Kid, didn't inhale, and New Covenant.
The George W. Bush Era
In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea
the axis of evil. Much of the term's power lay in its evocations of America's Axis Power enemies in
World War II hooked to the ethical problem of "evil."
The expression spawned a number of variants in the popular press such as axis of weasels (a label
applied to Germany and France for not joining the "coalition of the willing" in invading Iraq), asses
of evil (a tag describing Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld), and axles of evil (a label for gas-guzzling
Compassionate conservative was a centrist catchword used by George W. Bush in his 2000 election
campaign to win the Republican nomination. It was W's version of his father's previous kinder and
gentler nation. The alliterative phrase goes back almost half a century. The New York Times
employed it in 1962, describing Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn: "in action a compassionate
Nine days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, President Bush told a joint session of
Congress: "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there."
Technically speaking, war on terror, is an inapt combination of nouns. Terror is more a strategy than
an enemy. Conducting a war on terror would be like carrying out a war on long-range aerial
bombing or a war on minefields. When a tactic is substituted for a specific foe (e.g., the Germans,
Japanese, and Italians in World War II), final victory becomes hard to determine and unending war
becomes a realistic option. Other George W. Bush-era catchwords include cut and run, decider,
freedom agenda, misunderestimate, soft bigotry of low expectations, and stay the course.
(1). For more information on presidential catchphrases see William Safire, Satire's Political
Dictionary (New York: Oxford, 2008), a linguistic guide of political words and phrases containing
1800 terms defined in roughly 1400 entries.
Martin H. Levinson, PhD is a noted scholar of General Semantics and the author of a variety of books
including his most recent More Sensible Thinking (2012), and is the President of the Institute of
COPYRIGHT 2014 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.