The Clintonic Mood

Hail to the Chief! The President of the United States heads the executive branch of the federal government. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. And beyond these official duties, the most powerful English-speaker in the world has a binding responsibility to his native tongue.

Considering the sad state of the British Monarchy, the "Queen's English" is actually a few hundred words and phrases used to deny the scandals of those eminent inbreds, the Royal Family. So these days, when the sun never sets on American culture, the English-speaking world looks to the President of the United States for linguistic guidance.

When George Bush was First Speaker, people worried that his own peculiar patterns of speech would spread beyond the Beltway. After all, the leader of the free world regularly uncorked beauties like "wouldn't be prudent" and "not gonna do it."

In Bush's fractured syntax, pronouns mysteriously vanished, words were slurred together and odd idioms like "Don't cry for me Argentina" inserted themselves awkwardly into attempts at solemn oratory. Bush never seemed in total control of his language; he was like a somewhat inexpert horseman on a bucking bronco, jerking around abruptly from clause to clause and sometimes falling off altogether mid-sentence.

Perhaps the English language was spared any lasting damage since Bush served only four years. Now that Bill Clinton, a smooth and fluid speaker, is in office, one might think that English is out of danger.


Unfortunately, that's not the case. Clinton, though to all appearances well-trained in forensics, poses even greater dangers to the language than did his predecessor. The Anglophone world has escaped the danger of syntactic bankruptcy only to face the more insidious threat of semantic bankruptcy.

There is no denying that President Clinton speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Even a fellow Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, lamented that Clinton's transition period rang with "the clatter of campaign promises being tossed out the window." Deficit reduction, a middle class tax cut, easier asylum for Haitian refugees--these promises were uttered clearly and eloquently, yet their meanings turned out to be as muddled as the worst Bushian syntax.

I say this not merely as a Clinton voter, but as a satisfied customer. I am pretty happy with the promises he has chosen to break. My policy opinions are not the issue, nor is the issue simply "broken promises."

The crux of the matter is that Clinton has introduced a new category of meaning into the English language. Until now politicians could use the indicative mood to tell us facts. They could command their fellow Americans in the imperative mood, or muse on what they might do in the subjuctive mood.

Clinton's addition lies somewhere between the subjunctive and nonsense. Call it the Clintonic mood.

When speaking in the Clintonic mood, apparent contradictions engender no semantic difficulties. For example, Clinton the candidate made a point of saying his administration would "invest more in America," "cut the deficit in half by 1994" and deliver a "middle class tax break."

These goals, however admirable, are clearly contradictory. Clinton could not accomplish all of them, and had to retreat from at least one. This has nothing to do with his particular execution of the goals--their contradiction is inherent.

The Clintonic mood is already seeping into the administration's lower ranks. In her confirmation hearings, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was asked whether she or the president would have to give ground on the issue of welfare. Shalala has in the past advocated traditional welfare programs, while Clinton plans to "end welfare as we know it." Shalala's Clintonic-mood reply: neither she nor Clinton will have to compromise.

The Clintonic mood stands upon a rational foundation completely at odds with formal logic. Any proposition can be at once true and false when stated in the Clintonic mood.

Why would Clinton use such obfuscatory language? It allows him to say two things at once, to address two audiences and to tell them each a different story. To the average voter, it says that all of the difficult policy choices that complicate the political landscape are merely false oppositions.