September 29, 2008
The Gaffes of Politics and Prose
By KENT WARD
Old newspaper editors don't fade away - they just keep on playing editor. Thus it is that I find myself doing mental edits of strange things I hear on television newscasts these days.
Sentences that surely make strict grammarians wince in pain are being cranked out regularly by reporters, network anchors and advertising copy writers who apparently fail to read their copy critically, for the sense of it, before unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. Many a dangling clause hangs around in television's vast wasteland, looking for a decent home. It is not a pretty scene.
"The sin in prose composition that is known as the 'mangle,' the 'dangle' or the 'clunker' is related to the sin of gobbledegook, but though they achieve the same result the offenses are quite different," syndicated columnist and word maven James J. Kilpatrick once observed. "The shared result, of course, is confusion."
A small sampling of television's mangled danglers that have confused me in the past few weeks:
From a political ad promoting the candidacy of Democrat Tom Allen for the United States Senate: "Growing up in Maine, my parents taught me to stand up for what I believe ..."
From a CBS piece on Alaska and the state's Republican vice- presidential nominee, Sarah Palin: "Purchased from the Soviet Union in 1867, the people of Alaska ..."
From a talking head analyzing the Palin nomination during the Republican National Convention last month: "But with just a few years of experience as a small-town mayor and governor, Democrats are asking ..."
But enough, already. Misplaced modifiers and dangling clauses are not the only things that amuse as autumn begins to get serious and the Election Campaign From Hell mercifully winds down.
As I watched the CBS Evening News earlier this week, it occurred to me that the network with the aggravating habit of labeling approximately every fifth news story that it airs a "CBS exclusive" really did have an exclusive this time.
While being interviewed by news anchor Katie Couric, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden suggested that today's leaders would do well to take a lesson from history and respond to the present financial crisis openly, as Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reacted to the 1929 stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression.
FDR, Biden said, "Had got on the television and didn't just talk about, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened."'
And I'm sitting there saying to myself, "Whoa there. FDR - radio's famed Mr. Fireside Chat Guy - on television 10 years before television arrived on the scene? I don't think so."
Talk about jumping the gun, retroactively. Turns out that Biden had flunked his own history lesson on two counts: He had speeded up television's introduction, which actually hadn't taken place until the 1939 World's Fair. And he had put FDR in the White House at a time when it was occupied by Republican Herbert Hoover. FDR, who succeeded Hoover, wasn't elected until 1932.
Although nowhere near as consequential, Biden's gaffe was mindful of former President Gerald Ford's misstatement during a 1976 campaign debate with challenger Jimmy Carter. On that memorable occasion, Ford declared that Poland was "independent and autonomous" from the Soviet Union, which at the time dominated Poland and a good deal of Europe. Pressed to explain, Ford didn't reconsider his remark, but responded even more firmly. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be in a Ford administration," he insisted.
Political pundits who claim to know about such things considered Ford's temporary brainlock on the Poland question to be among the worst gaffes of any televised campaign debate in history and a factor in his loss to Carter.
The Biden and Ford slips are illustrative of misstatements that can be made by human beings under the pressure of a high-stakes political campaign.
Even though many of us likely have said things equally as dumb, or dumber, we have not had the misfortune to have said them on national television, which may help explain why we tend to have little empathy for politicians who do.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at [email protected]
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