Polbonics: Syrupy words and hot air Prevaricators: Politicians evade the truth with double-speak and fake sincerity.

February 02, 1997|By JUSTIN PRITCHARD

NEWT GINGRICH, despite lying to peers, you've just been re-elected the first Republican House Speaker since Gatsby danced the Charleston. What can you say?

"When I make mistakes. I am honest about the fact that I am human and I have made mistakes."

Call it epiphany, that's how Gingrich broke his silence after squeaking back into the speaker's chair a few weeks ago. Back on the truth-telling throne with a confession that he is, in fact, a human.

We might congratulate him on a solid start. Or, we might lament the absurdity of his words - and that they sadly capture how meaningless expressions of sincerity have become in national politics.

During the last decade, federal lawmakers nearly tripled their use of "frankly" in remarks on the House and Senate floors, a computer analysis of the Congressional Record shows. Words like "candidly" and "honestly" gained similar favor, as if some fad.

Congress seems an institution swept away by its own folksy candor.

Problem is, every time someone professes honesty, most of us expect a lie. Uttered without a stammer so often in Congress, these words signal little but spin. It's no surprise that pollsters at Gallup report over the last decade public cynicism of congressional ethics also skyrocketed. There can be virtue in the parlance of sincerity, sickly sweet as it seems.

A skilled speaker uses a well-placed "frankly" to disarm an audience, gather it into some deep confidence and then, bam, here comes the punchline. It can even signal honesty.

But politicians have borrowed decency from these words with such abandon that they are bankrupt.

Consider other findings from the Congressional Record. In the 100th Congress, members used "frankly," "candidly," or "honestly" an average of once every 33 floor speeches. By the 104th Congress, that average had jumped to once every 13 remarks, with Republicans and Democrats using the words in equal doses. A typical Congress sees about 90,000 remarks between the chambers.

Scandalized members used these treacly entreaties three times as often as the rank and file. They were paced by Rep. Walter Tucker III, the California Democrat whose brief service in the 104th Congress ended with bribery indictments - but not before he could contribute a sincere term to nearly every other floor speech.

Perhaps "honesty" does often augur deceit.

But no, here to restore your faith is Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican. Speaking last year to colleagues about a bill that would have allowed employers to form "company unions," he observered:

"I began this inquiry for myself about almost a year ago today. Frankly, this is May 8, the birthday of a notable Missourian. Harry Truman was born on May 8."

Surely Ashcroft was being honest, for he was indeed speaking on May 8 and that day is President Truman's birthday. But the word "frankly" adds nothing and means nothing. Few things chill the spine as readily as a politician who's desperate to convey how earnest he can be.

A final observation. "Sincerity" was never more rampant than in Gingrich's recent tribulations. Before the speaker's re-election, his boosters couldn't visit a Sunday TV round table or hold a press conference without "frankly" or "honestly" in tow.

But when the speaker and his his confidants spoke most candidly during their infamous taped phone conversation - we find no professions of honesty, false or otherwise.

It's a good precedent. The rest of you in Congress, put down your cudgets of sincerity and declare a cease-fire with the public.

Please stop, because - frankly - your words work too well.

Justin Pritchard covers Congress for LEGI-SLATE News, an online service based in Washington, which can be found on the World Wide Web at www.legislate.com.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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