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A nation cringes

That rude beast, a presidential campaign, slouches inexorably toward us. Even if you have contrived to ignore the flurry of stories about how much cash the candidates have raised, there will be no escaping the elements of an American presidential election.

First, the candidates will issue vague and gassy papers on The Issues, which will be soberly analyzed by The Serious Journals. Never mind that once in office, the winning candidate will likely do very different things — keep in mind Franklin Roosevelt’s pledge in 1932 to balance the federal budget and Richard Nixon’s assurance in 1968 that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War.

Second, because journalists know that virtually no one will read The Serious Journals on The Issues, most news stories will be written in the language of sports. Horse racing is the dominant element; one candidate is ahead, one has fallen behind, they’re making the turn, they’re in the stretch. The factual basis for these conclusions will be polls of dubious reliability. (Dubious because their methodology is unsound or because it is so hard to measure the public’s flickering attention from one week to the next.)

Third, the public will be bombarded by advertising, largely mendacious, by the candidates, by their parties, by interest groups. Amid this noise, something like half the electorate may trudge to the polls.

Fourth, the winner will be showered with puff pieces about what a swell fellow and admirable American he is: He eats toast for breakfast! He ties his own necktie! His children can read and write! Within weeks will come the discovery that he is an imbecile and a danger to the Republic. That will mark the point at which the next presidential campaign commences.

There’s not much anyone can do about this, except to resist some of the most egregious excesses and cliches. Watch out for poll stories, partisan claims of shaky accuracy (Think Swift boat), and formulaic language:

Dark horse
Retire this and other metaphors from the track.


War chest
This metaphor has been dead so long that Mason Adams made fun of it in an episode of Lou Grant. (That was a television show in the early 1980s, children.)

Of course, there are rare occasions on which the term may be applicable. The late Paul Powell, Illinois secretary of state, was discovered after his death in 1970 to be hoarding $800,000 in cash — some of it stashed in shoe boxes — in his hotel room in Springfield. If memory serves, it was Adlai Stevenson III who commented, “It will take a big man to fill his shoe boxes.”

One reader prompted this post by complaining about the term top vote-getter and wondering whether there was a simpler English equivalent of this ungainly compound.

Perhaps some of you — yes, you out there, sitting in the basement reading blogs instead of frolicking in the sunshine — could nominate your own suggestions for banning.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:46 AM | | Comments (2)


You Tube Generation.
Voter apathy.
Spin doctor.
"Debate" highlight.
Early returns.

The "undecideds" in so-called polls. Why not simply call them "disinteresteds"? It's very likely much more accurate.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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