October 23, 2016

The 1984 presidential debate that launched the term “Spin Doctors” – and a famous quip...

Nowadays, most people are familiar with the term “spin doctors.” I think they’ve been more omnipresent than ever during the 2016 presidential campaign, though few people know how they got that name.

The term is used to refer to the professional political consultants, PR gurus and media commentators who create or utter statements designed to influence public perceptions of politicians, events, corporations and organizations.

The connection between the word spin and things that are tricky or misleading is fairly old.

The use of the expression “spin a yarn,” in the sense of telling a tall tale, goes back at least to the early 1800s.

And, for more than a century, pitchers have been putting “spin” on baseballs to trick batters.

But “spin doctor” is a more recent phrase.

As documented by language maven William Safire in his New York Times column and noted in a fascinating story on NPR radio, that term was first used in a New York Times editorial published on October 21, 1984.

The topic was the televised debate scheduled that night between President Ronald Reagan, who was running for reelection, and the Democratic Presidential candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale.

It was the second of two presidential debates between Reagan and Mondale.

During the first debate, on October 7, 1984, many observers thought Reagan seemed somewhat tired and confused. Mondale gave the stronger performance.

Reagan remained ahead on the polls after that debate. But some pundits speculated that if Reagan “lost” a second debate — or seemed lost during the debate — it could spell trouble for him when voters cast their ballots on November 6th.

An editorial published in the New York Times on the day of the second debate predicted that the candidates’ surrogates would work fast and hard to make it seem like their candidate won, no matter what happened.

The first paragraph of the editorial said:

“Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisors to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.”

Reagan and Mondale’s PR people did indeed try to put their spin on the outcome after the debate. But the real outcome was that Mondale failed to gain any significant ground in the polls and Reagan uttered the most memorable line of the night.

One of the debate moderators, Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Trewhitt, asked Reagan about an issue he said had been “lurking” during the campaign — Reagan’s age. (President Reagan was 73 at the time.)

“You already are the oldest President in history,” Trewhitt said. “And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale…President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan responded with what became one of his most famous quotations, saying:

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

The audience laughed and applauded loudly at Reagan’s quip.

Then Reagan added:

“If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.’”

There is no record of Seneca, Cicero or any other ancient Roman celebrity saying anything exactly like that.

However, as Latin scholar Chris Jones has noted on the excellent LatinLanguage.us site, there is a quote recorded by Cicero that comes close to what Reagan said.

In Cato Maior De Senectute, Cicero quotes Cato as saying: “The greatest states are made unsteady by the young, sustained and restored by the old.” (Also translated as: “The mightiest States have been brought into peril by young men…supported and restored by old.”)

At any rate, Reagan’s advanced age and somewhat fuzzy memory were not viewed as problems by the majority of American voters.

On November 6, 1984, Reagan was reelected by an overwhelming margin. He carried 49 of the 50 states, 59% of the popular vote and 525 electoral votes out of 538 — the highest number of electoral votes ever received up by any American president.

Looking at the current political landscape, I think it’s a win record that is unlikely to be broken in the foreseeable future.

NOTE TO HISTORY BUFFS: To watch the entire October 21, 1964 Reagan-Mondale debate, click this link to the C-SPAN Video Library.

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October 19, 2016

Spiro Agnew vs. the “effete intellectuals” and “nattering nabobs”…

Nowadays, Conservative provocateurs like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter get lots of media attention for coming up with snarky, quotable insults aimed at Liberals.

But the way was paved for them decades ago by Republican politician Spiro Agnew (1918-1996), the former Governor of Maryland who became Vice President of the United States under President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Agnew unleashed one of his most famous zingers on October 19, 1969.

He was speaking that day at a Republican fund-raising dinner in New Orleans.

Four days earlier, opponents of the Vietnam War had organized a major anti-war demonstration, the October 15th Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in moratorium events in the United States and Europe.

Agnew was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, so naturally he had to take a swipe at the protesters.

He characterized them as people who “overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants.”

He went on (

and on and on) to say:

“Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap.’ A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” 

Other Conservatives and the press especially loved that last sentence. And, soon, the pithy core of it was compressed into the phrases still used today: “effete intellectual snobs” and the shorter version “effete intellectuals.”

Spiro generated a number of other catchy, insulting names for Liberals during his four years as Vice President.

Two others that are still cited are “the nattering nabobs of negativism” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” 

His pioneering verbal attacks made him a darling of the right until 1973, when his past caught with him. That year, he was charged with taking bribes and evading taxes during his tenure as Governor of Maryland.

He resigned as Vice President on October 10, 1973, as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time.

It was quite a scandal at the time. But, hey – at least Spiro Agnew wasn’t taking any of them there psycho-delic drugs or acting like a damn effete intellectual.

Though I do think he might have qualified as a nattering nabob.

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Related reading…

October 16, 2016

“Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat!”

The real life “Mad Men” who formed the Norman, Craig & Kummel (NCK) advertising agency in 1955 share the credit for a number of classic advertising slogans and campaigns that most people still remember.

One is the Maidenform bra series of ads that used variable headlines based on the formula “I dreamed I (did or was something) in my Maidenform bra.” Another is “Ajax: Stronger than dirt.”

In 1959, NCK was selected to be the new advertising agency for the fast-growing rental car company Hertz.

The NCK ad gurus soon developed a new ad concept and slogan: “Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat.”

According to the trademark application filed by Hertz, that slogan was first used in commerce on September 2, 1959.

It wasn’t bad. But it did seem a bit more like a demand than an offer.

So the NCK copywriters did some thinking and tweaking and created a more friendly-sounding, request-oriented variation — the world-famous advertising catchphrase almost everyone came to know:

       “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.”

The paperwork Hertz filed when it trademarked that version said it was first used in commerce on October 16, 1959.

In the early 1960s, print ads, signs and television commercials featuring the line were everywhere.

The TV commercials, which pioneered some early special effects, were especially memorable.

Gravity-defying people floated down from the sky into the seats of their rental cars, as viewers heard a cheery vocal group sing “Let Hertz put YOU in the driver’s seat” in a swinging jingle.

AdAge magazine has listed that series of ads as one of the “Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century.”

It helped make Hertz the largest rental car company in the world.

Then in 1963 Hertz’s smaller rival, Avis, started it’s own memorable ad campaign.

Those ads noted that Avis was “only No. 2” in the car rental business. Not as big as Hertz.

What that meant, the ads suggested, was that Avis was more motivated to please customers than Hertz.

This cleverly-snarky concept was encapsulated by copywriters at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in the famous ad slogan: “We try harder.” (Also listed in the AdAge Top 100.)

It was a jiu-jitsu move that turned Hertz’s position as the largest car rental company against it and succeeded in gaining more attention and customers for Avis.

By 1966, an
article in Time magazine noted that Hertz “is being at least nibbled by ‘We’re only No. 2’ Avis...Avis has upped its revenues by 34% in 1966, compared with Cadillac-sized Hertz's gain of 18%.”

The article also noted the Hertz had unceremoniously dumped Norman, Craig & Kummel and hired a new ad agency.

Their new agency never came up with anything as well remembered as “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.” And, ironically, Hertz has continued to use the slogan off and on in more recent decades.

The Hertz vs. Avis ad slogan war and the firing of NCK the agency business are a reminder that the advertising business in the 1960s was both extremely creative and extremely rough, as dramatized by the hit TV show
Mad Men.

It still is, of course.

But I doubt if the ad biz of today will ever be viewed as being anywhere near as cool as it was in the era depicted by Mad Men.

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Related reading, listening and viewing…


October 15, 2016

About that “giant sucking sound” and what qualifies something as a “famous quotation”…

The huge amount of attention focused on the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made me think of some of the famous quotations from past presidential debates.

One that coined a phrase still widely used today was uttered by Independent candidate Ross Perot on October 15, 1992, in the three-way presidential debate between Perot, Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

During that debate, Perot made a prediction about the effects of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many people today would view it as prescient.

Perot said:

“If you're paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory south of the border, pay $1 an hour for your labor, have no health care, have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don't care for anything but making money, then there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”

That quote by Perot was included in hundreds of news reports about the presidential debate. Probably thousands.

Few people remember his entire sentence nowadays, but the catchy phrase “a giant sucking sound” quickly gained what turned out to be long-lasting fame.

It is still regularly used and repurposed.

In fact, on almost any day, if you do a Google news search on “giant sucking sound” you’ll usually find the phrase in dozens of recent news-related stories and blog posts, even though the stories may not mention its source and many readers may be unaware of it — or of Ross Perot.

My own view is that it’s the familiarity of the line or phrase and its longevity that qualifies it as “famous quotation.” It’s not whether most people remember the specific origin or coiner.

It’s often not immediately apparent whether a line or phrase will rise to the level of being a truly famous quote. Many are just “famous for 15 minutes.” 

That’s why one of my favorite quotation mavens, Nigel Rees, has criticized the tendency of some modern quotation reference books, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, to elevate things like pop song lyrics to the level of other famous quotes simply because they were widely known the year the book was published.

“Remember the dreadful example of the 1999 edition of the Oxford DQ, stuffing in remarks and supposedly quotable lyrics from the Spice Girls?” Rees wrote in an issue of his great “Quote...Unquote” newsletter. “What a surprise that they have mostly gone from the most recent edition.”

On the flip side, many scholarly quotation reference books like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations include hundreds of historical and literary quotes that are not actually familiar to most people.

These less familiar quotes may be worthy bits of wisdom or wit, or worth knowing for the purpose of cultural literacy. But they are not necessarily what I would call “famous quotations.”

My own working definition of a famous quotation is a quote that is both widely known in part or in its entirety and which has had, or is clearly likely to have, a long life in our language — a line or phrase that is frequently and widely cited, quoted, praised, mocked, misquoted, adapted, recycled or repurposed.

In October 2016, everybody heard a lot about a crass quote by Donald Trump, recorded on a “hot mic” when he was getting ready to appear on the TV show Access Hollywood in 2005, after it was revealed to the press at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump was heard to say:

"I'm automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything...Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

It’s not clear whether those words will rise to the level of being a long-remembered and oft-cited “famous quotation.”

Hopefully, they won’t become a famous presidential quotation.

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Related reading…

October 09, 2016

The embarrassingly wrong history of the expression “embarrassment of riches”

“Embarrassment of riches”
is a widely-used idiomatic expression that most people are familiar with.

If you Google the phrase, you get millions of hits.

At any given time, if you limit your search to Google’s News section, you’ll find it in hundreds of of recent news-related stories and posts.

The phrase “embarrassment of riches” is not typically used in the literal sense of being embarrassed by having too much money. In fact, it’s not usually used to refer to financial wealth.

It’s generally used to describe an abundance of something else, typically something positive — some notably greater-than-average abundance of attributes, options, benefits, skills or talents.

Often, it expresses the idea that there are so many of these good things that it’s difficult to pick or highlight just one.

If you do a search for the origin of the term “embarrassment of riches” you’ll see thousands of web pages and book references that say it originated in 1738 as John Ozell’s translation of a French play titled L’Embarras des richesses. And, the literal translation of that title in English is indeed “The Embarrassment of Riches.”

However, the long-standing traditional claim that Ozell used that simple literal translation for the title of his English version of the play is wrong. I guess the claim has been repeated so many times by so many sources it’s assumed to be a fact. But it’s plain, flat out wrong.

John Ozell was a minor literary figure in 18th Century England. His birth date is unknown. He died in 1743.

Ozell made his living as an accountant. In his spare time, he liked to translate French books and plays into English, though by most accounts he was not particularly good at it.

One of the plays he translated was L’Embarras des richesses by the French playwright Léonor-Jean-Christine Soulas d’Allainval (1700-1753).

D’Allainval is also known as Abbé D'Allainval, which means “Abbot of Allainval,” because that’s what he called himself.

Adding Abbé to one’s name was an odd affectation used by some French bohemians at the time. Apparently, it was a sort of proto-punk poke in the eye of the Catholic Church. At times, D’Allainval even wore ecclesiastical garments. But, in reality, he had no real connection with the Church.

L’Embarras des richesses was a Moliere-like comedy of manners that became D’Allainval’s best known play. It premiered in Paris on July 9th (9 Juillet in French) in either 1725, according to some sources, or in 1726 according to others.

One of those dates is obviously wrong. Centuries later, it’s hard to know which, though most say the date was July 9, 1725.

Meanwhile, thousands of websites and books give 1738 as the date for Ozell’s English translation of the play. And, that date is demonstrably wrong.

Various contemporary and scholarly publications confirm that Ozell officially registered publication of his English translation in 1735.

More significantly, those sources and others document the fact that the English title Ozell gave to the play was The Plague of Richesnot The Embarrassment of Riches or An Embarrassment of Riches.

The historical record is fuzzy on whether the play was actually performed in English.

There are written accounts that say it was publicly performed for the first time in London on October 9, 1738 by a company of French comedians. They apparently performed it in French. But their show could be the reason behind the incorrect use of 1738 as the date for Ozell’s version of the play.

One thing seems clear to me now that I’ve looked into it: the thousands of websites, books and other sources that give Ozell credit for originating or coining the phrase “embarrassment of riches” in English are embarrassingly wrong.

If you look at a Google Ngram charting the appearance of “embarrassment of riches” in English, based on digitized scans of millions of books and other publications published during the past five centuries, you discover that it doesn’t appear to have been in widespread use until the early 1800s.

However, when I emailed the renowned quotation expert Nigel Rees about the phrase, he told me he’d found examples showing the phrase was being used in English by 1725 or so.

Nigel said in his email to me: “I would guess that whether or not Ozell’s play was actually performed or simply existed as a translation, the phrase entered the language because the French title translates itself into English without the need for a translator. Perhaps people simply became aware of the original French phrase from the 1720/30s onwards and, because it appealed to them, just used it. The Plague of Riches is not nearly so attractive!”

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Related reading: books about the origins of common clichés and idioms…

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