The Chicago Tribune is one of several news outlets running stories on the words that candidates have been using during the current presidential campaign, which is scheduled to end on election day next Tuesday, unless, of course, there's another problem with the ballots in Florida.
It turns out that this year's political vocabulary isn't much to write home about. We've been treated to arugula, we've palled around with terrorists surnamed Sixpack, and we're promising to drill, baby, drill our way out of our dependence on foreign oil (at the same time speeding the melting of the polar ice cap while the economy tanks). None of these are words that would put lipstick on bitter hockey moms who cling to their guns and their religion.
In contrast to this lexical mash-up, past presidential races have given us memorable new deals and great societies; ringing battle cries like "Give 'em hell, Harry," "I like Ike," and "It's the economy stupid"; and greeting-card verse like "It's morning again in America" and "Building a bridge to the 21st century."
It's true that not all past campaign rhetoric scored high on the Richter scale. Walter Mondale asked, "Where's the beef?" but lost anyway. Herbert Hoover called for "A chicken in every pot," and wound up with the Depression. Speaking of pot, Bill Clinton, who preferred his own definitions to those of Noah Webster, approved of the stuff but didn't inhale.
And speaking of lips, George H. W. Bush said, "Read my lips. No new taxes," then raised taxes. Following in his father's footsteps, George W. Bush promised "No Child Left Behind," then left no mission accomplished. And Conservative Barry Goldwater's 1964 slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," was transmuted by the "All the way with LBJ" crowd into, "In his heart, he knows the world is flat."
But 2008 has brought its own version of flat-earth rhetoric: the surreal vision of candidate Sarah Palin outfitted by Neiman Marcus celebrating Carhartts and steel-toed boots and real America, while her running mate John McCain told "My friends" about "my good friend, Joe the plumber," who is not a real plumber, isn't really named Joe, and hadn't really met McCain.
Unlike their opponents, the Democrats have stayed on the right side of the dictionary, at least so far. Joe Biden has made fewer verbal gaffes since he became the Democratic vice presidential candidate than he did before that, and the only Republican criticism of Barack Obama's language that is actually sticking is that he sounds professorial, which as the Tribune suggested, isn't surprising for someone trying to become our "educator in chief."
Although professorial is a dirty word in this campaign, Obama really was a professor of constitutional law at the hotbed of conservatism known as the University of Chicago Law School (and since Republicans want Obama to be known by the company he keeps, UC is also a university famed for its conservative economists, who have won 25 Nobel prizes while pursing their capitalist agenda).
But despite Obama's impeccable credentials as an intellectual moderate, the Republicans have been suggesting that his policies sound like socialism to them (wink, wink, you betcha). And they're labeling him with nicknames like "Barack the redistributor," which makes him sound more like part of a car engine than an economist.
In the mean time, the real socialists are running not Obama/Biden, but Brian Moore for president, and according to Moore, he can't tell the Republicans and Democrats apart, so far as capitalism is concerned.
Maybe the Republican candidates are grabbing at any words they can to build their sentences to nowhere out of a growing sense of desperation, as conservative pundits fault McCain for selecting Palin, fault Palin for "going rogue" instead of staying on message, and fault the ticket for abandoning the intellectual foundations of the party and pandering more and more to the party's imagined real-America base.
Plus their polling numbers are slipping – with six days until the election, CNN changed the color of McCain's home state of Arizona on its election map from red to gray. Which is bad, since, as McCain and Palin have been telling us, only the red states are part of the real America.
CNN election map, 10-29-08; by the next morning, AZ was red again
With the candidates spinning words, and spinning them so ineffectively, one is tempted to ask, what would Noah Webster say? America's lexicographer, who turned 250 last week, would have just one response to this year's Republican election lexicon, once he stopped spinning in his grave: "Flip flop."
Or maybe he'd just say, as he peeled the chads away from his old-fashioned punch-card ballot, which is what ballots are supposed to look like in the real America that apparently exists only in campaign rhetoric, "Thanks, but no thanks."