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Political Semantics And The Art Of The Slogan
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Political Semantics And The Art Of The Slogan

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Political Semantics And The Art Of The Slogan
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TERRY GROSS, host:

From Teddy Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, every president has tried to fix a brand on his domestic agenda. Now, says our linguist Geoff Nunberg, it's President Obama's turn.

GEOFF NUNBERG: Teddy Roosevelt had his Square Deal. Franklin Roosevelt had his New Deal. LBJ has his Great Society. And now Barack Obama is aiming to create a New Foundation. The president introduced the phrase in passing in his inaugural address and lately he's been working it in just about every speech, to link his programs for energy, education, health care and financial reform. I can see why the speech writers would have liked the phrase, with its suggestion of sound investment, not to mention the illusions of the parable from the sermon on the mount about building your house on rock rather than sand.

But of course, some people had their quibbles. New foundation has too many syllables, its meaning isn't obvious. It's the same slogan Jimmy Carter briefly floated in 1979. It makes you think of a girdle. That might all be relevant if New Foundation were being offered as a slogan like Change, We Can Believe In. The word slogan comes from the Gaelic for battle cry, if you'll cast your mind back, and slogans still live and die by language. They work for as long as they are vivid and fresh, and as soon as they get stale, they have to be replaced. Goodbye things go better with Coke: Hello, it's the real thing. But phrases like the New Deal and The Great Society aren't slogans.

They're more akin to brand names like Kellogg's or General Electric which gather a bunch of different items into a single product line. The actual phrases aren't that important. Even when a brand name starts out with an independent meaning, it only becomes successful when its original connotations are eclipsed by the aura of the thing it's attached to. People don't buy a Maidenform, so they can achieve the form of a maiden or shop at Safeway because it's safe. And if you're torn between buying a Cougar and a Jaguar, it's not because you can't decide which cat you like the best. In politics though, slogans can occasionally turn into brand names as their original meanings fade. Take the New Deal which only accidentally became a slogan in the first place.

After the Democrats chose FDR as their nominee at the convention in Chicago in 1932, he decided at the last minute to break with tradition and accept the nomination in person. When he arrived after a nine hour charter flight from Albany, his speech writer Sam Rosenman handed him a speech that contained a ringing line: I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. It wasn't intended as a campaign slogan, but the next day a cartoonist depicted a poor farmer looking up at an aeroplane labeled New Deal, and the phrase caught on.

It wasn't a novel. New Deal was an old term for a fresh start, originally derived from poker. At the time that metaphor was still very vivid, FDR's opponent Herbert Hoover ridiculed the New Deal as no more than a new shuffle. And just after the election, a columnist wrote we not only got a New Deal and a new dealer, but a new deck of cards. An editorial cartoon entitled "Hope" showed FDR about to deal of deck of cards, another more foreboding showed him with a deck topped by bearded bomb throwing joker labeled Socialist experiments.

To a desperate country, the slogan New Deal promised dramatic changes. Even if FDR's actual campaign platform was vague and not especially radical. It was only after the new administration enacted a torrent of legislation during its first hundred days, that the phrase grew capital letters and was transformed from a slogan to a proper name for FDR's programs. From then on, its original meaning began to fade. In modern times, almost nobody associates the deal of the New Deal with cards, most people assume it refers to an agreement or compact with the American people.

That transition from campaign slogan to proper name has never fully repeated itself. After Kennedy's election, his New Frontier slogan became a label for his administration's youthful style. But by the time his legislative proposals were brought to fruition, they were wearing the brand of Johnson's Great Society. And since then, presidents have had very little luck at branding their agendas. Neither Nixon nor Reagan got anywhere with the New Federalism. Clinton's New Covenant was blown out in the early innings by Newt Gingrich's Contract with America which faired better. And George W Bush's Ownership Society went down with his proposals to privatize social security.

Though you could argue that Bush's real marketing triumph was in bundling an assortment of far flung military operations and domestic security programs under the brand name War on Terror. History's judgment on these things doesn't depend on what they're called. If we still remember the Great Society, it certainly isn't because of its name, which sounded terribly inflated when it was first proclaimed. It's because like the New Deal, it encompassed a sweeping legislative program that transformed American life.

We would remember just as well if it would have been called the Sensational Nation or a Better Deal which was the name that Johnson actually tried out first. And the fate of Obama's New Foundation will ultimately depend on politics, not syllables or semantics. In fact, we'll know for sure it's a success when people can't remember why it was called that anymore. Obama was right when he said in the campaign that words matter, but names matter a little less.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist and the author of the new book "The Years of Talking Dangerously." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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