Rewarding ripe, resonant rhetoric

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

AS vicars of vacillation do their pusillanimous pussyfooting, this department now institutes the Agnew Annual Alliteration Awards (A.A.A.A. _ "the Aggies"), just in time for the current campaign of predatory presidential politics.

To the dismay of the oracles of oratory, originality has not been the hallmark of alliterative usages in the early stages of the campaign.

President Bush entered the lists this summer with his four - p. "It is time to move past the partisan politics of the past. However, in March 1995, Representative John Boehner of the Republican Party castigated Senators who voted down a balanced-budget amendment for "succumbing to the partisan politics of the past." (Looking backward always gets a bad rap, but what of the fearful fulminations of the future?)

Democrats, too, have been decidedly derivative, recalling the bygone days of Gary Hart's enlightened engagement. Calling for "principled partnerships'', Senator Joe Lieberman modified much-maligned multilateralism in this way: "Not multilateralism for its own sake - but muscular multilateralism that makes the planet safer." This oxymoron was coined in 1993 by Charles Maynes in Foreign Policy magazine: "The Clinton administration came into office as a strong proponent of muscular multilateralism.''

Senator John Edwards roused a crowd at the announcement of his candidacy in September with a ringing. "It is time to put an end to this administration's war on work!" Eight years before, however, Clinton's Labour Secretary Robert Reich and Economic Adviser Laura D'Andrea Tyson wrote in The Washington Post, "Why are Congressional Republicans waging an unprecedented war on work?"

Senator John Kerry, after making a pass at a two-pair hand with "bringing back the failed policies of the past", freshened up his alliteration by telling the Detroit Economic Club that Bush policies have "driven us back into the days of deficits, debt and doubt."

Dr. Howard Dean was more original as he flayed copycatism in his announcement last June: "We have slavishly spewed sound bites, copying each other while saying little."

A couple of generations ago, the 1952 Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson (who did not discourage the rhyming "Madly for Adlai") was stung by the Republican Party's lumping of "Korea, Communism and corruption" and angrily attacked alliteration with a perceptive pre-emptive punch: "Each of the following words will appear at least once: crime, corruption and cronies; bossism, blundering and bungling." In the same counterattacking spirit, George McGovern in 1970 denounced Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew's spell-binding speechwriters for their "foaming fusillades".

Nobody has yet approached the alliterative heights of President Warren G. Harding. Not only did he coin the phrase founding fathers - since edited to founders to escape sexism - but the only newspaper publisher to reach the White House also set the high standard to which subsequent generations of alliterators have aspired to attain. Ohio's favourite son emerged from the famed "smoke-filled room" to rally the nation to "not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity; not the dramatic but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise."

"OVILLAIN, villain," cried Hamlet about his murderous stepfather, "smiling, damned villain!"

This excoriation was not followed by a but; in Elizabethan times, a villain was a villain. But now, in the rampant vogue phrase bad guy, the guy is not all that bad. Villainy, or badness, is assumed and brushed aside; an ameliorative element has crept in.

"Sure, Saddam was a bad guy," notes Hugh Mackay in The Sydney Morning Herald, "but there are plenty of bad guys about." The Huntsville Times reported that the candidate Howard Dean "acknowledged Saddam Hussein was a `very bad guy' but said he didn't pose a threat to the United States."

A search of one database for the last couple of weeks turns up a score of uses of bad guy close to Saddam and in the immediate neighbourhood of but. Forget Saddam and politics; just try bad guy followed by but, and you'll get hundreds of examples of the diminishing evil in bad.

In 1998, the University of Tennessee's news centre headlined a poll "Tennesseans Rate Clinton Bad Guy, but Good President." Writing about the former Nascar race-car driver Darrell Waltrip, who lost his villainy status when forced off the track by another driver, Keith Parsons of The Associated Press quoted a fellow driver as saying, "Darrell may have still been the bad guy, but he wasn't as bad as the other cat." And a Knight-Ridder reviewer on the TV character Tony Soprano: "He's a savage bad guy, but he's also a family man with kid troubles and family troubles."

Not always thus. According to 1913 New York City court records, a Judge Rosalsky asked a witness, "When did you first meet Fay?" Answer: "In the House of Refuge. He was a bad guy. He would hit you with a chunk of pipe as soon as look at you."

In single phrasal stress, a bad guy was a villain; in double stress over the years, however, a guy lost a little badness. Perhaps that is because the word guy, which used to connote a macho male (from the name of the 17th-century British terrorist Guy Fawkes), is becoming sexless. As such, the phrase has become a stereotypical opposite in pseudo-Manichaean matchups: "the good guys and the bad guys.''

Listen for the use of the phrase today: as experts in villainy note, the bad guy may still be smiling, but he or she is not so fiercely damned.

New York Times Service
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