The WONK Factor The last detail: Some politicians choose policy over kissing babies

August 13, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Forget the year of the woman. If the polls are any indication, this may be the Year of the Wonk.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore, politicians known for their often humorless, studious ways, could represent America's first winning Double-wonk ticket in a long time.

Their campaign has already expanded the political lexicon, the way the Republicans brought spin doctors, damage control and political correctness to linguistic prominence.

Meg Greenfield of Newsweek recently called Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore "tough, ambitious, leadership-minded policy wonks." Columnist Ellen Goodman wrote of Mr. Clinton "The governor speaks policy-wonk."

And last month, Sidney Blumenthal, trying to spare Mr. Clinton the unfortunate label, wrote in the New Republic "Clinton can talk the talk and walk the walk, but he is never quite the perfect wonk."

Random House defines a wonk as a "grind" or a "student who spends much time studying and has little or no social life." In the political context, the word is often used to refer to candidates with a preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing.

Jesse Sheidlower, an editor with Random House, said the current usage appears to be of recent American origin and was first sighted in Sports Illustrated in 1962.

"A wonk, sometimes called a 'turkey or a lunch,' roughly corresponds to the 'meatball' of a decade ago," the magazine wrote.

The word then began cropping up in published works with increasing frequency. In the 1970 novel "Love Story," Oliver worried whether Jenny had fallen for a "musical wonk." A Harpers article in 1976 refered to a dorm at Harvard as a "cubicle for grinds and wonks."

Random House, a dictionary that is unusually accepting of new words, added wonk to its unabridged edition in 1987 and has since put it into its Random House Webster's College Dictionary.

It's usage has exploded in the last few years, especially in the political world, Mr. Sheidlower said.

The word may be related to "wonk" of British nautical slang, which the 1929 book "Sea Slang" defines as "a young male cadet who has not yet learned his job." The British still use "wonky" to describe something considered faulty or unreliable. In old English, wankol was a child. Later, wankel meant a toddler, Mr. Sheidlower said.

Wonks are not new to public life, but they rarely make it to the White House. Former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was a wonk. So are Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas.

Voters tend to be suspicious of overtly intellectual leaders, especially if they come across as snobbish, said Richard Katz, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. And being unsociable, as many wonks are, rarely enhances public appeal.

"Basically you don't get people running for president who are uncomfortable going out and mixing it up with the crowds and you would hope that you don't have dummies out there running, although the evidence on the latter is more mixed," Mr. Katz said.

Democrats don't have a monopoly on wonks -- witness Mr. Bush's nerdy budget director Richard Darman or chief of staff Samuel Skinner -- but party dogma often includes government solutions to societal problems. Devising such solutions makes the hearts of wonks race like a supercomputer.

The label "policy wonk" has been applied to both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore. Even after a disastrously dull convention performance four years ago, Mr. Clinton last month couldn't keep mind-numbing lists of policy initiatives out of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

And Mr. Gore's wooden performance on the stump is often cited as one of the failings of his 1988 presidential bid. A joke from that campaign asks "How do you spot Gore in a room full of secret service agents? He's the stiff one."

Both have jazzed up their styles for this campaign, embracing the more down-to-earth "double Bubba" label, but their emergence on the scene may hint at a coming change in government.

Mr. Katz predicts a Clinton-Gore administration would be less likely to raid corporate boardrooms and law firms for cabinet officials. Instead, they may scrounge around in universities -- havens for wonks.

If so, we could be on the brink of the "Wonk Decade."

Spotting the wonks: A who's who

Wonk:... ... ... ... ... ... ... .. ... ... Not a wonk:

Bill Clinton: Don't let the Elvis... ... ...George Bush: Spends more

fool you, this guy is the one who... ... ...time surf fishing than

lent Michael Dukakis the book on.... ... ...pondering fisheries

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .... ...policy.

Swedish land use reform. ... ... ... ... ...Dan Quayle: Studious?

Al Gore: Just ask him about ozone .... ... .Sen. Barbara Mikulski:

depletion. ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .More likely to be spotted

Paul Tsongas: Remember his "Call to... ... .in a hard hat at

..... ... ... ... ... ... ...... ... ... ...Bethlehem

Economic Arms"?... .. ... ... ... ...... ...Steel than writing

Sen. Paul Sarbanes: The only place. ... ....federal maritime law.

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