Frankly, My Dear

Politicians’ favorite verbal tic.

(Editor’s note: Slate is pleased to announce three new productions. Tadeusz Sikorski, the son of our “Foreigners” columnist, Anne Applebaum, was born Sept. 18 in Warsaw, Poland. Eli Saletan, son of senior writer William Saletan, was born Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C.

And this week Slate publishes our first eBook. Sons, by Nicholas Lemann, brings together his widely discussed profiles of George W. Bush and Al Gore, which first appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. Sons is available for free download from—along with the software to read it either on a portable device or a standard computer—here.)

How can you tell when a politician is lying? Don’t say, “When his mouth is open and words are coming out.” That is a cheap shot, quite frankly, and unworthy of readers of this column. A better clue is when he or she is using the word “frankly” or—especially—”quite frankly.”

A couple of weeks ago, I asserted that this favorite rhetorical device is an example of spin, an attempt to claim courage or originality for a toadying or banal remark. But on reflection, and a bit of research, it appears to be more of an unconscious verbal tic than a conscious strategy. For some pols, it is virtually a throat-clearing device. But isn’t it odd, Dr. Freud, that they should choose this particular phrase? And when a pol begins every third sentence with the word “frankly,” what are we supposed to assume about the other two?

Appending “frankly” to almost any remark made in public turns that remark into a literal lie in two senses. Regarding the speaker’s motive, it implies an artless lack of calculation or an active desire to tell unpleasant truths. And it implies that the remark itself is not merely true but deeply true in some way.

Unless last week is wildly atypical, American politicians use the word “frankly” dozens of times a day. While I wouldn’t say the magic word is a clear sign that a lie is attached, there may be a negative correlation between use of “frankly” and actual frankness. On Meet the Press, for example, Sen. Dick Durbin declared—as if these were confessions wrung out of him by Tim Russert’s famous tough questioning—that “frankly” the Republicans are adopting positions long held by Democrats, and “frankly” he doesn’t care for Bush’s policies on various matters. Then, to a question about Al Gore and contributions from trial lawyers, Durbin replied “frankly” that “the Bush campaign looks in the rear-view mirror” whereas “Americans want to talk about where we’re headed.”

The current king of frankly is Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney. Last week he said that “frankly” he is astonished that Al Gore would attend a Hollywood fund-raiser. Also, “frankly,” he “would expect better of the vice president” than to misrepresent what his dog pays for prescription drugs. “Frankly,” the Clinton administration is ducking a fight with Iraq. “Frankly” Clinton’s decision to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is politically motivated. “Frankly,” in fact, it is “not sound policy.”

Among other highlights of political frankness last week: Sen. Barbara Boxer alleged that “frankly,” voters tell her, “Barbara, we don’t want a tax cut.” Rep. John Kasich revealed that “frankly, we’ll have an election this fall and then, come January, we’ll kind of know … what we’re in for.” The political director of the AFL-CIO “frankly” predicted “the greatest union turnout effort ever” this election. However, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt acknowledged that “frankly” he is more concerned about bipartisan cooperation “to get things done for the American people” than about which party may have a majority in the next Congress.

At a press conference, Sen. Don Nickles scored a spectacular quintuple-frankly, reporting in regard to the administration’s oil policy that “frankly” it will lead to price controls, “frankly” it won’t work, “frankly” Al Gore and the administration are “part of the problem” because—”frankly”—”politicians like Al Gore” are “not making good economical decisions,” and “frankly” this has been a problem with Clinton-Gore for years. In a later at-bat, Nickles added that “frankly” he prefers the marketplace to government price controls (his description of the choice between accepting the OPEC cartel price and trying to break it, for which “frank” is only one word), and “frankly” everything the administration has done about oil has been “counterproductive.”

The New York Senate race is producing orgies of frankness. A New York Democratic legislator named Eric Schneiderman, on CNN to defend Hillary Clinton, noted “frankly” that most White House guests were not campaign contributors (the famous most-airplanes-land-safely defense) and even “frankly” acknowledged that her opponent, Rick Lazio, accepts campaign contributions too. Lazio, meanwhile, is a formidable frank-artist in his own right. Last week he confessed that “frankly” Hillary thinks “it only matters what you say when you get caught” and that “frankly” he’s too busy running for the Senate to comment about Hillary’s exoneration on Whitewater, among other franknesses.

It used to be said that a diplomat’s job was to “lie for his country.” But now all is frankness. The U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes (presumably that should be “against” war crimes) predicted that “frankly” Slobodan Milosevic would have more credibility if he turned himself in. And an international trade official, lobbying Congress for the China pact, testified “frankly” that it was a better deal for us than for them.

These days TV talking heads, not poets (frankly), are the “unacknowledged legislators” of our political system. And increasingly they, too, feel the need to reassure viewers that what they say is actually both sincere and true. TV pundits’ own special technique is to preface an assertion—however obviously speculative, tendentious, or flat-out made-up—with the phrase, “The fact of the matter is …” But they often resort to the classic “frankly” as well. Last week on CNN’s Capital Gang, for example, conservative pundit Kate O’Beirne had the guts to admit that “frankly” George W. Bush’s “polls started looking good” [sic] because “he started talking about … what the Bush agenda means for the middle class.” Frank talk indeed!

Now financial pundits are horning in. Last week one of them observed that Saddam Hussein “frankly” doesn’t care for either American presidential candidate. (He was claiming frankness for himself, of course, not for Saddam Hussein.) And, in what is frankly the frankly of the week, a man named Von Waggoner said on CNN, “Frankly, the optical networking space is a little bit worrisome, just from a valuation standpoint.”

How true. How very, very true. And thank goodness someone finally said it. Frankly.