Clinton as Polonius The language of the Democrats Clinton as Polonius

Clancy Sisal

July 27, 1992|By Clancy Sigal

GEORGE Orwell was convinced that corrupt language -- inflated imagery, stale metaphors, meaningless words -- corrupted thought.

As I watched the Democratic convention, his ghost reminded me that "euphemism, question-begging and a sheer cloudy vagueness" in political language was not unique to Britain in the 1930s.

Am I the only left-leaning progressive who feels asphyxiated every time Bill Clinton makes a speech?

Forget Al Gore, who has so mastered Non-Speak that a pharmaceutical company should buy the rights to him as a non-addictive alternative to Seconal.

But just as Mario Cuomo is the Democratic Party's Hamlet, Mr. Clinton is its Polonius, a near-genius of the cloudy and orotund. There are bores and there are deadly bores, and there are calculated bores who put us to sleep because they need us unconscious to commit daylight robbery.

The British Laborite Dennis Healey once said that listening to the waffling Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep."

After sitting through Governor Clinton's acceptance speech, I felt as if wool from that sheep had been stuffed into his mouth -- and my head.

Aside from Republicanizing the Democrats -- calling business a "noble endeavor" in the platform and inducing the "party of the people" to accept an essentially GOP agenda of "responsibility" and "family values" -- what are Mr. Clinton and his Mephistopheles, party chairman Ronald Brown, up to?

In rhetorical terms, their problem is how to shut up the often-noisy minorities that have made previous conventions fun to behold and hell to win elections with.

The fix is in -- everything is in place for a sellout. But how can we get all those African Americans, gays, feminists, Latinos, old-fashioned New Dealers (like myself) and assorted malcontents to buy it?

If you told them bluntly what "more empowerment and less entitlement" or "entrepreneurial government" really meant, they'd bay for your blood.

So you buy off potential dissidents like Mario Cuomo and Jesse )) Jackson by appealing to their good-soldier reflexes (and whatever perks, like a Supreme Court seat, you may dangle).

But the ticklish problem remains: How can you persuade the most liberal-activist wing of "th' Amurrican people" to swallow from a Democrat what might enrage them from a Republican? You hornswoggle them with dead-sheep language.

By now, even intransigents like me want the Democrats to win an election. We've got to play hard ball. But I just hate being taken for a sucker by my friends.

We all know what the deal is. The nation is plunging into a very serious economic crisis for which nobody has an answer. People are scared to death and need a sense of being looked out for.

When all is said and done, the skimpy safety net woven by the New Deal-Fair Deal-New Frontier Democrats is our first defense against the savagery of a heartless profit system that has profited so many of us but now threatens to eat us alive.

How do you manage a minimal welfare state whose capitalist economy is going to hell? And who makes the political decisions -- on what principles? -- that come down to starving or nourishing the poor, helping or throwing overboard the aged, killing off which industries to invest in others?

It's not a vision thing but a money thing. If we stray too far from the reality of money, we wander into the mushy swamp of the New Covenant. (Even if somebody put a gun to your head, could you explain what New Covenant means in 100 words or less?)

Mr. Clinton's wooliness is not an amiably minor blemish but a product of hard political choices that need to be tenderized until our senses grow dull. But is there no risk in finally breaking the connection between language and meaning?

"Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style," Orwell said.

Today, he might amend that to include the bathos, sanctimony and humbuggery of Democratic speechifying, which leave us, voters and potential precinct workers, with a nerve-wracking decision: whether to say "phooey!" to corrupt language or take Pepto-Bismol and go down the line with politicians who collude with us in camouflaging the genuine terrors of what lies ahead.

That, too, is a hard choice.

Clancy Sigal, a novelist, is author of "The Secret Defector."

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