The Quote-Unquote Presidency
Obama does his job as if the word had quotation marks around it.


Jonah Goldberg

Editor’s NoteThe following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and the folks who think a Friday without a ‘Dear Reader’ gag is like something else without something else),

First let me say I’m sorry about missing last week’s G-File. I was at AEI’s World Forum. I would tell you all about it except the whole thing is like double-secret off the record. I can tell you that panda bear is delicious and not nearly as stringy as you might expect (the trick, apparently, is in poaching the filet before you roast it). Also, you’ll be glad to know that when they let me out of my pit to fight James Pethokoukis with an uprooted “No Parking” sign (Jimmy P. chose a garden rake as a weapon — and he chose poorly!), I earned my gamemasters over 50,000 quatloos (what they’re calling bitcoins these days).

While at the World Forum, I had an interesting experience (“We’ll be the judge of that” — The Couch). I was talking with a couple Master of the Universe types (technically one MoU and a couple other MOUs-in-training) and one of them said to me something like “This sounds familiar. Did you write that somewhere?”

I had been talking about cigars (fitting, in that we were in the cigar lounge) and, yes, in fact I had written about whatever it was I had been saying. It felt a bit embarrassing at first, like I was cribbing material or something. But then I got defensive. Yes, I wrote it, I said. Followed by, “You’re damn right I ordered the code red,” which was a really strange thing to say.

Anyway, I don’t really have much of a larger point here, other than that the wall between my writing life and my conversational life is pretty low. Obviously there are some things I don’t share in print (or in my interpretative-dance shows). And there are some things I write about that I rarely talk about (“immanentizing the eschaton” rarely comes up at my daughter’s basketball games). But if I have a good insight — or what I think is a good insight (often a huge distinction) — I’ll probably write about it. And, if it seems appropriate in conversation — or dance — I’ll bring it up there as well. I guess the reason the whole thing stuck in my mind is that it was a reminder of how weird my life is. If you’re a plumber it’s fairly unlikely that someone will say, “Wait a minute, didn’t you snake a toilet just like this at work?” And if they did, it would be the questioner who would feel weird.

If you don’t get what I’m driving at, consider this. A very famous U.S. politician asked me the other night if the couch in the cigar lounge made he Couch from the G-File jealous. That’s weird. (“And crazy! I don’t need your validation.” – The Couch).

The Ironic Presidency

I was thinking: Maybe it’s time to put quotation marks around the entire Obama presidency?

Let me explain. In punditry and other wastrel professions, there are all sorts of ways to suggest that a word isn’t being used correctly. Scare quotes are the preferred approach. This is when you put quotation marks or (it’s better if you use your hands to gesture it out) “quotation marks” around a word in order to suggest that we all know the word inside the quotation marks doesn’t quite mean what it does or that it is being used for convention’s sake. Think of my entirely appropriate — if grammatically abysmal — use of quotation marks in “news”letter.

A ‘Digression’

Now, let me offer a brief parenthetical on the difference between using scare quotes and just using quotation marks incorrectly. As anybody who has ever seen a “Parking in ‘Rear’ Only” sign knows, some people really have no idea how to use quotation marks, often mistaking them for italics. There’s a whole blog dedicated to this fact. I particularly like the sign that says “In case of emergency ‘remain calm.’” Read literally, this would mean something close to the opposite, like “In case of emergency, do not remain calm but pretend to for appearances sake in an oddly detached ironic way” or some such. For the misuse of air quotes, I refer you to Joey Tribbiani from Friends.

‘Digression’ Over

Scare quotes are different. Here’s the “authoritative” take from Wikipedia, which is actually just fine:

Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase to imply that it may not signify its apparent meaning or that it is not necessarily the way the quoting person would express its concept. Thus, the quotes are used to establish a use–mention distinction, in a similar way to verbally prefixing with “so-called”. When referred to as “scare quotes,” the quotation marks are suggested to imply skepticism or disagreement with the quoted terminology.