The Corner

David Rieff v. William Safire

This David Rieff post that Ramesh noted the other day is, I presume, a great example of why you shouldn’t write blog posts when you are in the midst of a seething rage. Rieff is very upset about that Sarah Palin map with the crosshairs. He says that I “may choose to pretend that Americans have always used martial language in politics,” but the Secret Service begs to differ. OK, let’s go to the authority on usage in politics, Safire’s Political Dictionary. In NR’s post-Tucson editorial that so upset Rieff, we cited the words “campaign” and “rank and file” as examples of common political terms drawn from military affairs.

Safire on “campaign”:

As a noun, the term is applied to virtually all phases of an effort to win any kind of election, but most particularly the phase involving open, active electioneering; as a verb, to strive for a political nomination or office.

This term has been part of American politics at least since the turn of the nineteenth century. In Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams observed that the 1816 “parliamentary campaign hitherto has been consumed in one laborious effort to suppress the reformers.” To provincial journals inland, the term was familiar.

Campaign comes from the French word for open, level country and evolved from there into the military vocabulary, where it was first used to denote the amount of time an army was kept in the field; later it denoted a particular military operation. In seventeenth-century England, the term was extended to politics and usually meant “a session of a legislative body.” The meaning further evolved in transatlantic passage as the business of getting elected to public office grew more complex. But the idea that politics is a form of combat remains. When he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt told the convention: “This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.” See arena.

For other political terms with military origins, see on the point and military metaphors.

Then there’s Safire on “rank and file”:

The broad range of party members; the troops, more active than the average voter registered with a party.

Former New York Governor Al Smith, making a late effort to get the Democratic nomination in 1932, stated that “it would be wise…not to instruct delegates to the convention in favor of any candidate.” This ploy was aimed at eroding delegate strength already pledged to Franklin Roosevelt. FDR immediately objected to “the kind of national convention which became merely a trading post for a handful of powerful leaders, and where the nomination itself had nothing to do with the popular choice of the rank and file of the party itself. … The rank and file of the party should be heard.”See power brokers.

In Congress, the rank-and-file members are all those not in the leadership, and who are reminded in words attributed to longtime House Speaker Sam Rayburn, “those who go along, get along.” The phrase, now most often used in the labor movement, is from the military, where rank and file means the whole body of enlisted men, including corporals but sometimes excepting sergeants. See military metaphors.

Since Safire twice advises us to look up the “military metaphors” entry, let’s do it:

Soon after the opening gun of the campaign, the standard-bearer was denounced as a hatchetman, an old fogy and a flash in the pan by the left wing, and it appeared to diehards that the old war-horse’s boom was a lost cause; but the man on horseback turned out to be a good soldier, and the troops –from palace guard to old guard to the fifth column in the enemy camp – closed ranks, ignored the smokescreen, and did not hesitate to wave the bloody shirt; the calculated risk of the banner districts was saluted at a victory rally, with the spoils divided by a task force at campaign headquarters before the new Administration’s first hundred days.

Of the military phrases above so often used in politics, the not-so-obvious are hatchetman (who cleared the woods for General Washington’s troops),  flash in the pan (a cannon charge that misfires), spoils (originally of war), left wing (of a military front), hundred days (Napoleon’s final campaign), and old fogy (originally a Scottish term for “an invalid or garrison soldier”). The others appear elsewhere under individual entries. Also see field expedient; fighting the problem; hold the line; low profile; on the point; shock and awe.

Military images appear in international diplomacy (arsenal of democracy), and words born in hot and cold wars are used in politics (fifth column; eyeball to eyeball); in return, politicians create phrases for warriors (bigger bang for the buck; overkill).

In the application of metaphor to politics, only sports metaphors (particularly racing) compare to the military. war-gaming words will direct the reader to words created for military-political use, and pentagonese to military jargon.

Even slogan comes from a Scottish war cry. See rank and file.

If Rieff doesn’t have handy a copy of Safire’s great and very useful book, I would be happy in this new era of civility to send him one, free of charge, so he can avoid such embarrassments in future.


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