Block That Metaphor!

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 10, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — My favorite mixed sports metaphor came in 1984 from Lawton Chiles, now the governor of Florida, who described the ''game plan'' for the presidential debates this way: ''It's like a football game. . . . Mondale can't get the ball back with one big play. But the American people love a horse race. I would advise him not to knock Reagan out.''

Well, as expected, the 1992 campaign began with the usual assortment of slam-dunks, knockout punches, end runs and hard balls. But something happened after the campaign left New Hampshire and relative civility.

While I was trying to get out of the locker room, we ended up in the trenches. The metaphors switched from sports to war. The political coverage reads less like Sports Illustrated than Soldier of Fortune.

We have campaign ''assaults'' and ''attacks.'' The Super Tuesday states are ''battlegrounds.'' The candidates ''snipe'' and ''take aim'' at each other. Jerry Brown is accused of using ''slash-and-burn'' tactics. Paul Tsongas is ''under fire.'' And Pat Buchanan is a man who will ''take no prisoners.''

How did this primary get off the playing field and onto the killing field? Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, says that war images creep in as a campaign gets hostile: ''When you are playing fairly within the rules of the game, the sports metaphors fit. The war metaphor is much more negative. It doesn't assume fair play or a referee.''

If words are the way we frame our ideas, the war metaphor is more than rhetoric. It forces us to talk and think about elections as if they were lethally combative events in which the object was to kill the enemy and declare victory. In the end, the war metaphor produces a victor or a commander-in-chief. But not necessarily a governor, or a leader, or a problem-solver. War talk doesn't allow the candidates to describe or stand on common ground. ''It doesn't assume the goodwill and integrity of the other side,'' says Ms. Jamieson, ''It doesn't talk about common good and collective ends. It assumes one person is right and the other's wrong.''

Fighting words frame the campaign as a search-and-destroy mission. It is not a coincidence that attack ads make the headlines. Nor is it a coincidence, says Ms. Jamieson, that men are much more likely to talk like warriors and write like war correspondents.

She has been trying to elaborate a different political campaign language. She first played with a courtship metaphor: the candidates woo the electorate and pledge forms of fidelity. That was, to put it mildly, fraught with sexual undertones.

A New Hampshire focus group came up with the metaphor of an orchestra: The government is a collective entity that needs a leader to keep things in harmony. This had a nice ring, but it didn't hit all the right notes.

Now Ms. Jamieson is toying with a metaphor that would picture the campaign as a quest: The candidates must overcome ''tests'' that reveal their ''character.'' The campaign becomes a ''search'' for answers, not for the soft underbelly of an opponent.

The point is to shift the verbal focus from strategy -- ''Is he doing what's necessary to win?'' -- to problems -- ''Does he understand them, can he solve them?'' Her own quest for this ''quest'' metaphor has just begun. Any ideas are welcome in our metaphor mailbag.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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