Some Political Terms From the Mouths of Presidents or Their Speechwriters

AA:    I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more political terms.

RS:    New York Times language columnist William Safire is the editor of the newly updated Safire's Political Dictionary, and a former White House speechwriter.

AA:    He spoke with VOA's Adam Phillips in New York. And we began today with some of the phrases used by the current occupant of the White House, who moves out in January.

William Safire

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Of course, one of the most famous is the Axis of Evil. That refers to the three nations that George Bush felt, and I think still feels, were the most dangerous -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea. And that was based on the World War Two, and preceding World War Two, the Axis Powers of German, Italy and Japan.

"Of course, War on Terror is associated with him. And he wouldn't like it, but waterboarding is now associated with this administration -- the torture by frightening someone into thinking they are drowning by pouring water over their face. That was a technique used in the Philippines by the American liberators. And a particularly nice one -- the soft bigotry of low expectations. That was a beautiful turn of phrase, I thought.

"Now misunderestimate was a goof that he made, a blunder, because it's obviously redundant. You either underestimate somebody or you don't. Every president goofs, comes up with bloopers or mistakes. Every president misspeaks. There's a new word, by the way, misspeak. It means, essentially, to say what you don't mean. That's what misspeaking is. It's like a typographical error in your speaking and it's used as an excuse.

"The passive construction is another excuse. You will see somebody saying 'Mistakes were made.' That's a trick. That's not saying 'I made a mistake.' That's suddenly diffusing the blame. That was done in a[n Abraham] Lincoln speech. He went though a speech he had to make at one point to the Congress, in eighteen sixty-three or four, in which he just changed all the 'I did this' to 'it was done.'

AP:     Presidents, or their speechwriters, are often creative in their use of language. William Safire says that Franklin Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 during the Great Depression until his death in 1945, just before World War Two ended, was something of an aristocrat, but he knew how to convey a sense of warmth and approachability to everyday Americans.  

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "For example, when he was running for an office in New York State as a young man, he heard another candidate use the words my friends as the introduction to a speech. And he remembered that. And when the time came for what he called fireside chats -- which were his first broadcasts over radio, which was then a new medium -- and he would begin it with 'My friends.' That took the onus of 'oh, I have to listen to a speech' off the audience and they could say 'well, this is a fireside chat.'

"Now today, if you listen to any interview with [Republican presidential candidate] John McCain, Senator McCain spices it with 'I'm saying this to you, my friends.' And he throws 'my friends' in almost every paragraph. And it's a warm way of making contact with an audience. And he got that from FDR.

AP:     And that technique could still come in handy today when candidates give what Safire's Political Dictionary calls the speech.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Every candidate, in the course of a campaign, has to work out in his own mind what he will say if called upon to get up and talk for ten minutes to an audience or to a crowd outside. It's like walking around with some sourdough in your saddlebag, which you can mix in with whatever dough [is available] locally and you can make a bread out of it -- the speech.

AP: "Is that the same as stump speech? Where does that word come from?

WILLIAM SAFIRE: " A stump speech comes from standing on the stump of a tree in front of a crowd. That's two centuries old. And to go on the stump is to make these stump speeches, where you can stand up three foot taller than everybody else and harangue them."

AP That was 'the speech' of the old days?"

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Exactly, right."

AA:     New York Times language columnist, and former presidential speechwriter, William Safire is the editor of Safire's Political Dictionary, recently published in a revised and updated edition by Oxford University Press.

RS:     The first part of his conversation with VOA's Adam Phillips can be found on our Web site, And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.