TOPICS > Politics

A Word’s Worth

February 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: Listen to the words.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Whatever one thought of the legal and political process just ended, it provided an unusual spectacle of high and low rhetoric. Congressmen quoted the Bible and Shakespeare.

REP. DICK GEPHARDT (D-MO): In the Book of Isaiah in the Bible, it was said, “judgment is turned away backward, and justice stands far off.”

REP. HENRY HYDE: I can borrow the words of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” as he addressed his little army of longbowmen at the battle of Agincourt, and he said, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Other congressmen used less lofty language. In May, Indiana Republican Dan Burton called the president a scum bag. By December, as the House began debate on impeachment, Representative Ray LaHood decided it was time to remind members to be civil.

REP. RAY LaHOOD (R-IL): The rules prohibit members from engaging in generally personal abusive language toward the president, and also from engaging in comparisons of sitting members of either house of congress. (Booing)

SPOKESMAN: Meanwhile, back in the mud -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On television, there was nonstop talk about the scandal. And much of that talk was about sex.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Once-taboo words now became the stuff of televised congressional debate.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM (R-FL) : Monica Lewinsky said on nine occasions in her sworn testimony before the grand jury the president touched her breast,

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The phrase “oral sex,” unimaginable in most newspapers till now, appeared 248 times in the “Washington Post,” 167 times in the “New York Times,” and 135 times in “USA Today” in the past year.

SPOKESPERSON: We’re going to get graphic here. Miss Lewinsky testified -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And when the Starr Report was released in September, journalists read some of its most salacious details for the first time, live on the air. Parents wondered what to say to their children.

REP. MARY BONO (R-CA): Mr. Craig, do you have small children at home?


REP. MARY BONO (R-CA): What do you tell them? How do you explain to them that their president has lied and that it’s okay?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And children talked about it, too.

CHILD: I believed him at first, but then when he admitted it, like, I knew that he lied, so I thought we should get a new president that we can trust.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Are you folks enjoying the impeachment trial? How many of you are enjoying it? (Cheers and applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Comedians had a field day, with more than 2,000 scandal jokes over the past year. Perhaps the most interesting twist: The meaning of words seemed to take on new significance. First, there was a careful answer to this question:

JIM LEHRER: You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: There is not a sexual relationship, that is accurate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then, eight months later, during the president’s grand jury testimony, lawyers for the independent counsel asked about a statement in the affidavit filed by Monica Lewinsky in the Paula Jones case.

ATTORNEY SOLOMAN WISENBERG: The statement that there was no sex of any kind, in any manner, shape, or form, with President Clinton, was an utterly false statement, is that correct?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. If the — if he — if “is” means “is and never has been,” that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In their impeachment debate, members of the House pondered that answer.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D-CA): “Alice in Wonderland”-like notions pop into my head, watching someone so smart and so skilled, so admired by the American people for his intellect and his talents, digging himself deeper and deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole, and us along with him. Many thoughtful Americans wonder whether the deconstruction of our language will damage the culture. What will happen if words no longer have common-sense meaning, if everything is equally true or not true, because, after all, it depends on what your definition of “is” is?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, what is the state of language and culture after the impeachment trial? Five people from five different lines of work help us with that. Comedian Mark Russell has been performing his political satire on public television and elsewhere for more than 20 years. Advice columnist Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners, writes a syndicated column that appears in more than 200 newspapers. Poet Robert Pinsky is poet laureate of the United States, and a regular contributor to the NewsHour. Professor Philip Royster teaches in the English and African-American Studies Departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein of Bard College is author of “The Repeal of Reticence.” Robert Pinsky, look as a poet at the language of the scandal and impeachment and tell us what you see.

ROBERT PINSKY: Elizabeth, in poetry there is an old distinction between the higher grand style, the ornate style, and the plain style. And I think with a we’ve seen a lot of us people huffing and puffing in the grand style, quoting Lincoln and the bible, invoking the Holocaust and images of their children — and trying to get the grand style going about something that basically is material that a lot of people find embarrassing. And the advantage of some of the great plain style language of the impeachment crisis of 25 years ago, I don’t think Peter Rodino or Robert Baker were known as great orators but they had the advantage of being able to use rather plain language to help us understand matters that didn’t feel embarrassing but felt rather grave and solemn.

MARGARET WARNER: And Mark Russell, how do you see language as a comedian, besides it being great grist for your mill?

MARK RUSSELL: Well, I go for the lofty. I mean this is PBS. And so I can’t get enough of Henry Hyde. But what you need with Henry Hyde is a translation. And I thought you might have used the quote where he said “you can dress a shepherd in silk, but you will still have the smell of the goat.” Translation: Acquittal happens.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Philip Royster, you teach English. What did you see in the language?

PHILIP ROYSTER: Well, I think the language that is supposed to be a crisis is no crisis at all. There is a politics of language usage going on. English has a vulgar side to it that goes back to Old English and Middle English, Old French, some of the languages that formed modern English. And you can hear more vulgar English than we heard related to this impeachment if you go to a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Gurstein, were you surprised by the analysis of the word is? Mr. Gurstein. I’m sorry. Mr. Royster. I’m still with you, Mr. Royster.

PHILIP ROYSTER: No. I was not surprised by that. Indeed, as a matter of fact, the word “is” is a very complex word. If you go to a good unabridged dictionary, you are going to find a lot of different meanings. There is a lot of philosophical debate and talk about. And we all use it in very, very complex ways very naturally from the ages of about four or five years old. So, no, I wasn’t surprised by it at all. I wasn’t surprised by the partisans trying to make politics out of the usage, either.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rochelle Gurstein, what do you think the most important effect of the scandal and the impeachment will be on language and culture?

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: Well, I think in terms of culture we’ve reached a point where people seem to have no sense of a distinction between public and private, specifically the sense that there are some things that are too small, delicate or fragile to appear in public. So, I disagree with Professor Royster that just because we hear language in a shopping mall that’s vulgar, that that’s appropriate for our public discourse. In fact, it seems to me that it has flattened our sense of what goes on in the sphere of intimacy, as well as degrading our tone of public discourse.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that what you mean when you say that matters of the heart can’t stand this scrutiny?

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: Yes, I think there is a question — this goes back to what Professor Pinsky was saying — between — there’s a real difference of what things are large enough to be the object of public scrutiny, and the grand style — used to have to – used to describe a certain kind of large subject matter. And that the matters of the heart are so small, so fragile, that to talk about them in a very casual, frank way, has a tendency not to capture what’s at stake and I think it trivializes them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Judith Martin, what does Miss Manners think about this? Do you agree?

JUDITH MARTH: I’d like to make a case for prudery. I think I’m the only one who’s willing to do this? But -


JUDITH MARTIN: Well, feeling that you shouldn’t investigate everything and that you should look shocked when things get not perfectly frightful but slightly. I feel sorry for those small children, not because their sensibilities are trampled on — because I’ve heard them in the mall, too — I feel sorry for them because they are trying so hard to shock their elders and everybody is refusing to be shocked, so the world gets more and more vulgar. Young people, artists, they are all trying to get a rise out of us. I’m the only person who is willing to say all right. Fine, you’ve shocked me. You can stop now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Martin, you think this has added — the scandal has added to that trend?

JUDITH MARTIN: Well, if you are going to investigate such things, you are going to talk about them. And if you are going to talk about them, I don’t care what kind of language you use, everybody is going to understand what you’re talking about, and you could find shocking language about it in Shakespeare; you could you find it in the Bible; it would be better phrased. But perhaps — but it would be about these things. I mean my feeling is there’s a Safo poem that says if you’re squeamish, don’t prod the rubble on the beach. We are prodding the rubble on the beach and then people are feeling squeamish but saying, well, it’s more honest or it’s more healthy to get it out. And so they are letting it come out and out. If we don’t like it and people don’t like it, let’s show we don’t like it. Let’s be prudish about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Philip Royster, what about that? Is it more healthy to let it come out? Was is it hypocritical before, the way people dealt with private matters?

PHILIP ROYSTER: Well, I don’t know about healthy or hypocritical. I do believe that as a matter of fact the language and public discourse are not controllable by our ethics and morality. It would be nice if we could stabilize it. I think the more relevant influences are, for example, the liberation of women. As the attitudes towards women have changed in the public marketplace, the language that we are willing to use in the public marketplace has also changed.

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: Don’t blame the women.

PHILIP ROYSTER: I don’t think I’m blaming the women. I’m looking at the social structure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Royster, let me just ask one question. Are you saying that the language that we heard, the way this was discussed, can’t be explained just by the nature of the scandal and impeachment but that it’s something that really has been caused by other larger forces?

PHILIP ROYSTER: Indeed, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is this a good thing or a bad thing in your view?

PHILIP ROYSTER: Well, I think good or bad depends upon what side you’re on. I think it has good and bad results to the rest of us. And I think the best part of this whole debate is that we are able to hold political constituents accountable. And I think also we see that people are able to express their relationships to politicians. And I don’t mean to pun there, but I think we are hearing more about issues that have long been real but have been covered up. And in that sense I think it’s very, very good.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Judith Martin, you wanted to jump in here.

JUDITH MARTIN: Well, I would like to say something in favor, now that I said it about prudery — about hypocrisy — and against its being healthy to get these things out. I haven’t noticed that everybody is healthier now that these things are out. Everybody I know has the flu. And in addition to that, there was a poll last week saying they are all dissatisfied with their sex lives, all of America – and, no wonder, because it interferes with their watching other people talk about their sex lives on the hearings. But hypocrisy also can be a wonderful thing. You don’t have to talk about everything you’re doing. It’s — the Victorians have a reputation for never having done anything, which makes you wonder how we got here. But what they didn’t do was to talk about it endlessly. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t see that it has improved the world.


MARK RUSSELL: Well, we could start by granting what is obviously America’s wish — the public wish today that the media give up sex for lent — at least for that while. But what you could do — I reached a point where I couldn’t avoid it. You talk about words. And so I took the six words as defined by Judge Susan Webber Wright, as what constitutes sex, the touching of genitalia, anus, groin, breasts, inner thigh, or buttocks, and I put it to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidotious.” So you trivialize it a little bit, and take some of the shock out of it. We used to think we knew the definitions of these things. We used to think we knew what adultery was. When Moses came down from the mountain top with the Ten Commandments, they should have sent him back up there for more details.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mark Russell, seriously did this open up whole new areas for you that were previously forbidden?

MARK RUSSELL: No, because we talked trashy long before Bill Clinton came along. It didn’t start with Bill and Monica. I mean, there are parts of the Ken Starr Report that aren’t nearly as raunchy as some sections of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But the Starr Report is Ulysses written by a lawyer, or if James Joyce had no talent at all, he would have written the Starr Report.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Pinsky, other great scandals have become part of lore and the culture. I’m thinking of Anthony and Cleopatra; or Abilard and Eloise. How will this one become part of our culture?

ROBERT PINSKY: I’ll make a prediction. I don’t think Miss Manners is nearly as isolated as she says she is. I won’t be surprised if we have a great national flinching or wincing away from the hyperbole of moral outrage on the one hand and the yacking about sex on the on the other hand. I think there are probably many people, journalists and other people in the media, who are trying to find ways to get language to make more sense.

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: Bless you, sir. Will you join us?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rochelle Gurstein, how did this all begin? You’ve written a history of sort of how — I think you call it the party of exposure has overcome the party of reticence. Just briefly, when did this begin?

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: In the last quarter of the 19th century there was really the invention of what we think of today as invasive journalism. And it was an effort to, in some ways democratize the press to deal with lots of different subjects but the people who were very disturbed by having private affairs in the public realm felt what is happening today, kind of trivializing what is really important about the public. In fact, things were seen to be so bad that people like Louie Brandeis and his law partner at the time attempted right to privacy, to protect people from invasive journalism. I think what distinguishes our time from the Victorians and from the 19th century in general is that the people who used to be in favor of reticence, people like one would imagine like Kenneth Starr, or perhaps even Dole, now speak about sex in ways that would have shocked the Victorians. So that you can have Dole and Mrs. Dole speaking about Viagra where they’re the ones would you have expected to be a little more reticent – and the same thing with Judge Starr. He’s always being portrayed as a Puritan or Victorian. And yet he uses language and asks questions that the real Victorians would have been appalled by. So this is — I’m sorry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Gurstein, let me just get this clear. What you’re concerned about here is partly that a large public question with enormous public implications is somehow equated with these very private things and that’s the problem with the blurring of the public and private boundary?

ROCHELLE GURSTEIN: Yes. When we have public issues, things that — matters of justice or equality or liberty, we have ways of speaking about it by using language that is based in principles. When we have matters of the heart, private matters, we don’t really have a public language to speak about it. That’s why I think comedians have so much fun with it because they can make a joke out of it. I think the other side of it is it can become obscene. That, of course, is what I think Miss Manners was talking about with saying that there should be a feeling of embarrassment or shame. So, there is a way that private matters in the proper sphere – in the intimate realm are the most meaningful and deep and matter very greatly to most people but they just can’t stand the public exposure. And that’s why we are in the moment where we are today where we seem to have no sense of the distinction between private and public.


JUDITH MARTIN: Can I say something?


JUDITH MARTIN: As a life long reporter – which is that even though the more salacious aspects were not discussed, people’s – politicians’ personal lives have been brought out in the open by them for years. And I think it’s only fair to say if you, as a politician, say and I’m not arguing for more snooping, but if as a politician you say I must be a good guy — look at my lovely wife and children — it is only fair to say, well, why don’t we look at your lovely mistress, too? It’s been that phony thing of the phony personal. And I would be in favor of keeping the entire personal spectrum in the background because I think it does naturally lead to too much keyhole peeking and people really don’t care for what they see.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Philip Royster, aside from what we’ve been talking about, what other long-term effects do you see from this scandal, from the impeachment, on the culture?

PHILIP ROYSTER: I don’t see a great many long-term effects, except a continuing discussion as to whether or not we can use these private matters. I think the public does agree these are private matters. I think the polls show that. But the politician were, I think bent upon making publicity out of these and politics out of these private matters. And I think the real question is will that continue? Will political figures be vulnerable and will their personal lives be vulnerable despite the polls that suggest the American public indeed want to keep the matters quite private?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mark Russell, what do you see as the other long-term effects?

MARK RUSSELL: It will get no better. It will only get worse. It is going to escalate. At the turn of the century when you could only say limb, a woman’s limb or a woman is with child – and when they started saying leg and pregnant, people were shocked. Less than 25 years ago, if I were, as we’re being taped now, if I said, “Oh, my God,” you would blip that out. You would blip it out because that would be offensive. And so as shocked as people were then, it’s just going to escalate and escalate as the networks compete with cable and now the “P” word is already on commercial television and the “S” word and the “F” will be on commercial television shortly into the next century.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Robert Pinsky, briefly long-term effects?

ROBERT PINKSY: Elizabeth, I think it is significant that no one, with one exception, has found language to rise above this matter. The one public figure whose public stature may have increased in the course of this is Hillary Rodham Clinton and that’s mostly because of things she didn’t say and language she didn’t use and a certain kind of restraint and dignity and that may have long-term effects.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much.