Paul Greenberg

It's not exactly news that businesses in this country have been cutting jobs and pay for a couple of years in hopes of staying solvent. Now the Obama administration may follow suit. The president has proposed freezing the pay of federal employees for the next couple of years, which is just one of the cost-cutting steps his critics have been proposing for the last couple of years. It is part of Barack Obama's gift of gab that he can make it seem like his own idea.

The president indicated that the federal pay freeze might be only the beginning of his starting to sound like the opposition. "Going forward ..." he began, using the most superfluous and, alas, most ubiquitous phrase in polspeak. For what's the alternative -- going backward? Surely not even his most admiring followers think the wonder-working Mr. Obama can reverse time.

"Going forward," the president was saying, "we're going to have to make some additional very tough decisions that this town has put off for a very long time." This Town is polspeak for Washington, D.C., and is supposed to add an air of informal authority to whatever is being proposed at the time. Much as some movie gangster in the Thirties was always saying, "We run dis town."

Junior political consultants and minor lobbyists in Washington are much given to speaking of This Town, too, perhaps in hopes of lending their words some ersatz weight. A president should have no need for the phrase, but after the shellacking Mr. Obama took in the midterm elections, he may feel the need to at least sound in control.

Please note that the president didn't say he was the one who'd been putting off economizing for a very long time. No, it was This Town that had been putting it off. This, too, is a required conjugation in the rhetorical lingo known as polspeak. For when a president has taken some action he's proud of, the accepted form is first person: "I did" or "We did." But when he's put off doing those things he ought to have done, he uses the third person -- it's This Town that has put it off. If and when somebody puts out a Strunk and White for politicians, this construction should be high on the list of rules.

In the event of a major foul-up, presidents may shift to the passive voice. "Mistakes were made," to quote a Reaganism. That way individual responsibility is sidestepped or at least diluted even while said foul-up is duly acknowledged.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.