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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “The ballots don’t make the results, the counters make the results.” Mark Kleiman suggests the first rule is just “Get elected.” But maybe it’s “Respect the voters.” Or Warren Buffett’s choice: “Reputation is like virginity — once lost it can never be regained.”

Some first rules on the web seem too general, like “Always speak to the base.” Others, way too specific, like “Never get caught in a hotel with either a dead girl or a live boy,” or (from George Clooney’s 2011 film The Ides of March) “Don’t screw the intern.” (Clooney’s script used a different verb, but I have to abide by the many editorial rules of writing for The Chronicle.)

Most of the proposed first rules of politics are depressingly cynical: James Hacker’s “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” (from Yes, Minister); Boardwalk Empire‘s “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story“; the Hope Not Hate movement’s surprisingly harsh “Get your lies straight.”

But this week a new First Rule of Politics bubbled up: “Never compare anything to Hitler.” Poor Sean Spicer. It was awful to watch. I transcribe from the video:

We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II.
I mean you had a –
someone as despicable as Hitler
who didn’t even sink to the — to the — to using chemical weapons.

A quiet question about what he meant, and perhaps some irritated muttering about Zyklon B, and soon Spicer seemed to be fighting his way out of a cloud of imaginary hornets (“Must. Escape. May still be a way out … Don’t mention the Holocaust …”). Batting thought bubbles and hornets aside, he launched a desperate struggle to justify himself:

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no –
he was not using the gas on his own people
the same way that
Ashaad [sic] is doing …
I … I understand what you’re saying
Thank you
I appreciate that
There was not in the …
He brought it into the Holocaust center…
I … understand that
But in the way that Ashaad used them,
where he went into towns and
dropped them down to innocent
into the middle of towns …
I… I appreciate the clarification
That was not the intent.

A day later came the apology, in an interview with Wolf Blitzer:

I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts
that Assad had made against his own people last week,
using chemical weapons and gas.
And frankly I mistakenly uh
used an inappropriate insensitive reference to the Holocaust
for which frankly there is no uh
there is no — no — no comparison
and for that I — I apologize
it was a mistake to do that and uh you know
I appreciate the —
Director Panetta’s comments and keep them in mind.

Even though I hate to see a creature squirming in pain, I could not stop the grammarian in me from asking how someone could hold the most important spokesperson job in the solar system without mastering English grammar. When Spicer said that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” that’s not what he meant: He meant even Hitler didn’t sink to using them. You get completely the wrong meaning if you leave the adverb even until after the auxiliary verb. That’s syntax, not just one of his familiar malapropisms.

When he mentioned “the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week,” that’s not what he meant: No one says “He made acts.” You do things, you take actions, you commit crimes, you perpetrate atrocities, but you don’t make acts. This man he no speak the English!

I’m not sure how I’ll feel when Spicer is removed from his job in a week or two. Glad that an inarticulate blunderer no longer speaks for the president of our great country? Or is there benefit in having Spicer stay on, damaging the image of an administration I oppose? Then again, is it perhaps bad for our country’s executive branch to be represented by anyone this incompetent, no matter which president he speaks for? Could Spicer even be a boon for President Trump?

I don’t know. Maybe all I will feel when he goes is relief that the kitten is finally out of the drainpipe — that Spicer is out of his misery and need never again be portrayed by Melissa McCarthy.


Thanks to Richard Bleiler for pointing me to the Snopes page about Stalin.

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