Paul Greenberg

The policies Mitt Romney advocates might be quite new after four years of this administration, but his language is a golden oldie. By now, the retro phrases that punctuate his vocabulary have acquired a name of their own: Mittisms.

Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker, a couple of New York Times reporters, compiled an impressive list of them in a news story that ran in our paper the other Sunday. To run through them is to take a trip into the past:

When he fell in love with his wife, Mitt Romney wasn't just in love, he was "smitten." He doesn't just get off an airplane but "disembarks." In his world, crooks don't go to jail but to "the big house." People don't laugh but "guffaw," and they never hurl insults but "brickbats."

It's a vocabulary from a vanished America where people wrote letters, not sent emails, and kids hung out at soda fountains. After interviewing him, reporters might not be surprised to walk out into streets full of AMC Ramblers, bobby-soxers and even good manners. How dated.

Quaint would be an understatement for this presidential candidate's habits of phrase. The Times describes his language as "a rhetorical time capsule." This isn't to say the man can't be forceful. When riled, he's been known to mutter, "H-E-double hockey sticks." To quote the astounded speaker of the House in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was governor: "He actually said that. Who talks like that?"

Answer: Mitt Romney does. He uses "darn" as an expletive, as when he responded to a questioner in Kalamazoo, Michigan: "Darned good question!" Shocking.

The man is incorrigible. Not that he's joined the language police, but he will demur politely from today's casual obscenities. As when a Democratic state senator engaged in a little street talk in his presence, and Governor Romney responded: "Well, I wouldn't choose that diction." You'd think politics was bean-bag.

This could take some getting used to if Mr. Romney makes it to the White House. It'd be quite a change from Joe Biden, who has been known to confuse vulgarity with eloquence.

When the opposition warns that Mitt Romney is out of step with the times, they may have a point, but for those of us of a certain age and disposition, his Ivory Soap vocabulary -- 99.44 percent pure! -- would be a step not just back but up. That advertising slogan itself must date back to Radio Days circa 1944.

No doubt Americans were just as profane back then, but not our leaders, certainly not in public. It wasn't done. But there seem to be fewer and fewer things that are just not done in our oh-so-advanced era.

What does it matter how a presidential candidate talks? It's his policies that count! But are the two, words and actions, so easily separable? For it may not be clothes but language that maketh the man.

The spiffiest of rising young lobbyists, in their thousand-dollar suits and Armani ties, come across as cheap louts when they open their mouths and start spewing out profanities. At least they do to ladies and gentlemen, if there are any left of that vanishing breed. Maybe it's a time-bound concept. Remember when people used the phrase, "a gentleman of the old school?" Now it may be more an accusation than description.

David Axelrod, the president's spokesperson, once dismissed Mitt Romney's dated vocabulary and his politics in general by saying he "must watch 'Mad Men,' " the television series set in New York's advertising world of the 1960s, "and think it's the evening news."

But the 1960s might be a decade too advanced for Mr. Romney's language. To my ear, he sounds more like the 1950s -- "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best," rather than "Mad Men." If he were on "Mad Men," he'd surely be one of those difficult clients who wouldn't condone racy language. At least in public, and among people whose respect one sought.

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But I'm speaking as the product of a sheltered, not to say, puritanical childhood. We spoke Yiddish at home, and I never even realized there were dirty words in Yiddish till I went off to college and joined a Jewish fraternity. The only Yiddish spoken at the fraternity house were the vulgarisms, which now seem to punctuate every popular sit-com. It is not a step up.

The first time I heard a full vocabulary drenched in obscenities was from a drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood when I was an ROTC cadet. Talk about sheltered. I had no idea what the words meant, exactly, but only that I wasn't raised like that.

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In some respects, like language, why not return to the past? It would be progress.


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.