Politicians misspeak a lot these days, so much so that you’d think that misspeaking is all the rage in the nation’s capital, the way the Hula-Hoop or the Pet Rock once were. Misspeaking is not exactly the same as lying, of course; lying has that ugly air of purpose about it, an air that might lead your average voter to conclude that his local solon was deliberately trying to deceive him. Lying is cold and hard, while misspeaking is as soft and fuzzy as a teddy bear and much more open to positive interpretation.
Misspeaking is, in its essentials, much more like using the passive voice. Most students don’t learn much about the passive voice in school today, which is understandable once you remember that public education in this our Great Republic is a governmental responsibility and what government wants to answer inconvenient questions from the citizenry? None that I know of, and if you don’t teach the kids about the passive voice in the first place, they’ll never know when you’re using it when these same kids are coughing up their hard-earned tax dollars to pay the Big Three automakers to lose money. Now just in case you haven’t heard yet, the passive voice occurs in a sentence where the subject is the object of the verb, as in the gun was left in the car, but not the cannolis. You’ll notice that you don’t know who left the gun in the car and if you’re smart you won’t ask, and this is the reason politicians and civil service types love the passive voice. It is easier, much easier, for a politician to say that errors were made in the implementation of this policy than it is for the pol to get up and say, I screwed up big time here, folks, I’m sorry. People who screw up lose their bids for re-election; errors made in the implementation of a policy are the gremlins’ fault.
The problem politicians have with the passive voice is that there are still enough people who recognize the beast when the pols trot it out to explain their latest disaster. What our lawmakers really need in cases like this is a way to lie through their teeth without looking actually looking like they’re lying. And thus we come to the ever-growing popularity of misspeaking.
What gives misspeaking its peculiar power is that the listener knows the pol is lying—he is, after all, a politician, and politicians lie when they inhale and when they exhale, when they eat and when they excrete, when they…well, you get the point—but the listener can’t tell just how this guy is jerking them around. A misspeak, beyond being something all pilots want to do, could be a flat-out lie or a simple mistake or a statement someone made without knowing there was a wiretap in the room or even just someone’s half-baked opinion and not at all the official policy of the government of the United States, no matter how many times you read it in the New York Times, which, just as an aside, likes to use the passive voice to plant unannounced editorials in the middle of its news coverage. Just thought I’d stick that in so you’d know what those guys are up to. Now, if you could combine the passive voice with a really good misspeak, the Air Force could accidentally set off a nuke in downtown Denver and then say that the Broncos were responsible for the disaster.
Given the immense popularity of misspeaking amongst politicians, it’s only a matter of time before misspeaking catches on with the public at large. Taxpayers could misspeak on their tax returns, husbands could misspeak about cheating on their wives, and their kids could misspeak about their grades, i.e. Mom, I misspoke when I said I was getting a B in math this semester. Misspeaking could get big, really big, I think, the kind of big that gets its own reality show, unless, that is, you already count C-Span as that reality show. They could change the format around though, and bring in better looking people; the ugly old clowns they’ve got in there now are just so miscast it’s not funny. I mean, really, Nancy Pelosi? Whose idea was that, for crying out loud? Isn’t Paris Hilton available these days?
Yes, I see a tremendous fortune in misspeaking. The opportunities in misspeaking on Wall Street are just too rich to think about and, better yet, the Democrats are returning to the White House. Republicans don’t misspeak as well as Democrats, for reasons that defy explication, although the media holding the Republicans to a different rhetorical and grammatical standard than Democrats might have something to do with it. Lyndon Johnson misspoke so often he opened a credibility gap several miles wide in Pennsylvania Avenue and Bill Clinton misspoke so often he couldn’t keep track of all his misspeaks and so ended up parsing the word is in public. Jimmy Carter tried to misspeak, but he wasn’t convincing as a misspeaker and had to rely on being wishy-washy instead.
Ronald Reagan was the only good Republican misspeaker in recent years, primarily because he’d convinced himself that he wasn’t misspeaking at all; the Bushes, both 41 and 43, weren’t and aren’t very good at it; there’s just something about misspeaking that offends the old New England Puritan spirit, I think; and Richard Nixon was positively horrible at it. Whenever Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, needed to misspeak he’d say his previous statements were inoperative, which only made Nixon sound guilty as hell. That he was guilty as hell is not the point here; the entire point of misspeaking is that you never sound like you’re not telling the God’s honest truth as you know it right at this instant. And if it isn’t the God’s honest truth, well, you just misspoke, that’s all. No harm in that, is there?