One of the great contributions of the late Joseph Heller was his understanding of how ideas and phrases get repeated with mindless reverence in bureaucratic cultures. This is especially true in Washington, which Heller lampooned in Good As Gold, one of his minor novels (let’s face it, aside from Catch-22, they were all minor). Repetition of meaningful phrases (like Heller’s own coinage, “catch-22”) tends to drain them of meaning. But it was Heller’s special insight that the ideas and phrases that make the most attractive candidates for Washingtonspeak start out by containing almost no meaning at all. From Good as Gold, here is Bruce Gold, a middle-aged English professor living in Manhattan, being recruited by phone for a Washington job by his friend Ralph Newsome, a chipper White House aide:
“Ralph, wait, for Chrissakes!” It was in self-defense that Gold protested. “You’re boggling my mind.”“What was that?” Ralph asked in surprise.“You’re boggling my mind.”“Bruce, that’s a good phrase,” Ralph cried crisply. “Damned good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard boggle used with an animate subject before. I’ll bet all of us down here can start getting mileage out of that one right away. That is, of course, if you don’t mind letting us have it.”“Ralph–”“Excuse me a minute, Bruce. I want to get it down exactly the way you said it. How did it go?”
Since 1979, when Good as Gold was published, Washington has become more of a rhetorical echo chamber than ever. Remember how Ross Perot loosed “the devil is in the details” on political discourse? A Washington cliché even emerged to praise mindless conformity: “singing from the same songsheet.”
To honor Heller’s passing, Chatterbox invites readers to nominate the top Washington rhetorical cliché for 1999. All nominations should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and not to the Fray. Nominations should contain specific citations, preferably with Web links, showing when and where the cliché was uttered. Whoever can come up with the most citations for a suitably inane phrase will win. Newly hatched clichés that are not confined to public-affairs discourse (e.g., “the new new thing,” widely borrowed from Michael Lewis’ excellent Silicon Valley book) are ineligible. So are folksy evergreens such as “That dog won’t hunt.” Please submit entries by Dec. 25.