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What is so annoying about political rhetoric today is the smearing. In a smear, you characterize your target as something generally considered far worse. Both parties do it, but what really got me going was Senator Mitch McConnell's attack on the pending reform of financial institutions as a bailout. The bill calls for a resolution fund financed by the banks themselves, not a bailout.

The trick is to pick any which label, any term that sounds negative, at least to your base, and apply it so thick it conceals the topic supposedly under debate. In this case the smear is so far from its target, the routine needs a new name. Any which name will do. How about witchcraft?

There's an honor roll of words political sorcerers have distorted: 'intellectual,' 'elite,' 'Wall Street' and 'French fries.' Even 'bailouts' were once good, President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulsen told us when the banks wanted them, but now they don't -- so they're bad. 'Liberalism' was good against tariffs and mercantilism when our country was young, but now that it defends civil rights, it's bad. 'Europe' was good, when we identified with it against the Soviet Union, but now that its public programs seem attractive, 'Europe' is bad. 'Privacy' was good to protect property and personal intimacy, but now 'privacy' conceals 'creative accounting,' so it looks different. Anyone can smear: if the pointy hat fits, wear it.

Every sentence should have a predicate, I remember being told. A predicate makes an assertion about a subject. But in political rhetoric, just a sneer and the witch-word du jour will do.

For his assault on grammar, the Senator deserves a sentence of his own: a nice long one, without parole.


With a Perspective, I'm Alan Bernstein.