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Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes

Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech

Chuck McCutcheon

Publication Year: 2014

To the amusement of the pundits and the regret of the electorate, our modern political jargon has become even more brazenly two-faced and obfuscatory than ever. Where once we had Muckrakers, now we have Bed-Wetters. Where Blue Dogs once slept peaceably in the sun, Attack Dogs now roam the land. During election season—a near constant these days—the coded rhetoric of candidates and their spin doctors, and the deliberately meaningless but toxic semiotics of the wing nuts and backbenchers, reach near-Orwellian levels of self-satisfaction, vitriol, and deceit. The average NPR or talk radio listener, MSNBC or Fox News viewer, or blameless New York Times or Wall Street Journal reader is likely to be perplexed, nonplussed, and lulled into a state of apathetic resignation and civic somnolence by the rapid-fire incomprehensibility of political pronouncement and commentary—which is, frankly, putting us exactly where the pundits want us.

Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes is a tonic and a corrective. It is a reference and field guide to the language of politics by two veteran observers that not only defines terms and phrases but also explains their history and etymology, describes who uses them against whom, and why, and reveals the most telling, infamous, amusing, and shocking examples of their recent use. It is a handbook of lexicography for the Wonkette and This Town generation, a sleeker, more modern Safire’s Political Dictionary, and a concise, pointed, bipartisan guide to the lies, obfuscations, and helical constructions of modern American political language, as practiced by real-life versions of the characters on House of Cards.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Jeff Greenfield

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pp. ix-x

...Congress—was asked by a young girl in New Hampshire what he would do about acid rain. Without a second’s pause, Dole replied: “That bill’s in markup.” It’s really not that puzzling why a United States senator would assume that a New England schoolgirl would understand the reference to the intricacies...

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pp. xi-xviii

...D.C., has become spectacularly, even proudly, indecipherable to most outsiders. It has its own political culture, including a specific language. It is a lexicon, a jargon—a code, if you will—that can be alien to those...

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1 | Bed-Wetters, Sherpas, Squishes, and Other Personality Types

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pp. 1-36

...Among our favorites was the late former New Mexico Democratic governor Bruce King, a homespun, handshake-driven guy (Bill Clinton, campaigning in the state in 1992, called him a modern-day Will Rogers) with a penchant for malapropisms. One of his most famous...

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2 | With All Due Respect, I Deeply Regret Holding You in Minimum High Regard

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pp. 37-68

...much to exclude as include,” Wayne Fields, an English professor at St. Louis’s Washington University who studies political argument, told one of us. “It goes across the board. It’s hard to say which comes first—whether...

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3 | Going Downtown through the Overton Window to Play in the Endgame

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pp. 69-99

...and pompous pundit who, at the outset, listens to former President George H. W. Bush heap praise on him—“Not that you weren’t tough, but you always put your country first”— and then implore him to chronicle his life’s exploits for history’s sake. “Don’t hold back,” Bush...

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4 | On a Glide Path with an Odd Couple to Nut-Cutting Time

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pp. 100-128

...and “unanimous consent.” That’s better left to other books. We would like to point out, though, that even politicians bemoan how the widespread use of such terms insulates them from their constituents. Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill told us that the...

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5 | Dead Money, Dog Whistles,and Droppin’ the G’s

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pp. 129-172

...differentiate between a funder and a finance event, you’re plugged into the bewildering lingo of American elections. Political campaigns have a jargon all their own. In a sense, it’s not surprising or unique. Health-care- supply salespeople have their own specialized terms to discuss...

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6 | Having to Explain Blowback on the Tick-Tock

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pp. 173-202

...craft language that’s easy to repeat,” said David Rosen, founder of the consulting firm First Person Politics, in Washington, D.C. “Everything from ‘don’t cut and run’ to ‘tax relief ’ rather than ‘tax cut.’” Rosen recalls coining the phrase “Don’t double down on trickle down”...

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pp. 203-204

...and Byron Dorgan, former representatives Martin Frost and Michael Arcuri, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, and state senator Tim Mathern. Also Jeff Greenfield, Brian...


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pp. 205-246

List of Terms

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pp. 247-251

E-ISBN-13: 9781611686579
E-ISBN-10: 1611686571
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611687002

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2014