December 15, 2006

"The Way Forward": A New Platitude Swims Into Our Ken

Shortly after the election, I wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that the Democrats' victories signaled the final unraveling of the administration's predilection for encapsulating its policies and positions in snappy catchphrases.

The breakdown was most recently evident in October, when the White House announced that its "stay the course" slogan was inoperative ("We've never been stay the course," Bush said a bit rashly, providing the news shows with an irresistible setup for the series of clips that showed him saying exactly the opposite.) But then in retrospect, you could write the whole history of the administration's efforts at impression management as a string of linguistic miscues and slogan recalls.

Just six months after the 9/11 attacks, for example, Bush's insistence that his administration was focused on getting Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" had morphed into "I don't know where he is. . .. I truly am not that concerned about him." That was followed by the singularly ill-advised "Mission Accomplished" (With the wisdom of hindsight, the White House must wish that it had gone with something more noncommittal, like "Way to Go.") And so on; as I put this in the earlier piece:

"Axis of Evil," "War on Terror," "cakewalk," "Freedom is untidy," "Bring 'em on," "When they stand up, we'll stand down" -- the more pithily memorable the catchphrases were, the more they came back to haunt the administration when their disconnect from reality grew too obvious to ignore.

Now, only slightly daunted, the administration is back with "a new way forward," appropriated from the title of the Iraq Study Group report. Bush has been using the phrase incessantly, echoed by Condi Rice and Tony Blair (it came up 13 times in Bush and Blair's press conference last week).

You can understand the appeal of the phrase. After all, "forward" sits cheek-and-jowl with "progress" and implies a contrast with "retreat," which is how Bush has taken to pronouncing "cut and run" these days. But as slogans go, it's a pretty wan and unconvincing sequel to "mission accomplished" and "stay the course": it sounds like a tagline an ad agency would come up with for a railroad trying to emerge from Chapter 11. And its very vagueness underscores what most people have already concluded, that Bush really has no idea where he's heading. Indeed, the phrase already pregnant with the ironies it's sure to evoke later on. Because, let's face it, the last time this administration had a clear idea which direction "forward" lay was the day before the troops entered Baghdad.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 15, 2006 07:34 PM