“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” (Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair).

For certain, politicians – or at least their speech-writer counterparts – have a way with words, some better than others.

What some people may find ironic is the American public’s total distaste for anything that’s not politically correct, yet they have an almost naive willingness to accept blatant hypocrisy in the lives of their elected officials.

For instance, in many cities, “Dead End” street signs are being replaced with signs that read “No Outlet”; the word “abortion” has been replaced with “reproductive choice”; and “freedom” – well, it depends on whom you ask to define it.

Yet, Mark Foley, who left the U.S. Congress in disgrace following the discovery that he’d sent inappropriate (now there’s a word) e-mails to underage pages, was chairman of the Caucus for Missing and Exploited Children; and Rev. Ted Haggard, noted anti-gay crusader, recently confessed to paying a male prostitute for drugs and a massage.

Why the disparity?

John Yeutter, associate professor of accounting at Northeastern State University, believes it began several decades ago.

“It all goes back to Watergate,” said Yeutter. “During the late 1960s and ‘70s, society as a whole was moving toward a global tolerance: breaking down the race, sex and religious barriers of separation. Then, along comes Watergate, and society realized we can change society’s attitudes as a whole, but politicians will always be corrupt.”

Yeutter believes the Oct. 20, 1973, “Saturday Night Massacre” embodies the trend.

“Even though two men in power - Richardson and Ruckleshaus - refused to follow the demands of a corrupt leader [Nixon], and chose to resign, nevertheless there was someone without a conscience, Robert Bork, who would do what was asked,” said Yeutter. “In spite of this open show of lack of moral character, he was nine years later appointed to the Federal Circuit Court, and nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by [President Ronald] Reagan in 1987.

“So, living in a post-Watergate society, we have an expectation that our leaders will be corrupt liars, and most of them turn out to meet our expectations. This is happening while society as a whole is becoming more diverse, tolerant and sensitive to other cultures.”

“Doublespeak” is a term coined from George Orwell’s novel “1984,” in which the central insight was the manipulative use of language. Orwell was alarmed by government propaganda and the seemingly rampant use of half-truths, and he conveyed this to his readers in vivid detail: “War is peace,” “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.”

Timothy Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s project on criminal justice, applied Orwell’s doublespeak to the war on terrorism in a Sept. 6 essay.

“It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty,” wrote Lynch. “Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.”

Dianne Barker-Harrold, former Tahlequah district attorney and current counsel for the United Keetoowah Band of Indians in Oklahoma, believes in telling it like it is.

“I think we have gone overboard on how we don’t offend some people while, at the same time, in other ways, we completely ignore how it makes another person feel,” said Barker-Harrold. “Plain, non-abusive language is always better. Being very straightforward and plain-spoken has probably caused me problems because I pretty much tell it like it is, but in the end, people may not remember what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

One demonstration of doublespeak Lynch illustrated in his essay was the concept of Homeland Security.

“After 9/11, lobbyists and politicians quickly recognized that the best way to secure legislative approval for a spending proposal is to package the idea as a ‘homeland security’ measure, even if the expenditure has nothing to do with our national defense,” wrote Lynch.

True enough, many grants for funding have been issued nationwide for seemingly mundane needs. One example Lynch used was that of a $900,000 measure spent on the Steamship Authority in Massachusetts, which runs ferries to Martha’s Vineyard.

When questioned about the hefty sum, the local harbormaster confessed he had no idea what it would be used for, but “you don’t turn down grant money.”

Cherokee County Emergency Management System also received some of the benefits of Homeland Security funds, and received a new truck and 30-foot trailer so the agency could “respond in the event of another terrorist attack or some other disaster,” according to Gary Dotson, EMS director.

According to Lynch, lobbyists host entire conferences on “How to Sell Security to the Government.”

Robert McQuitty, retired professor of English at NSU, pointed out that awards are given for those in power who regularly practice doublespeak.

“The National Council of Teachers of English has been awarding a yearly doublespeak award since 1974,” said McQuitty. “In 2003, it was given to Bush for his speeches on why we should go to war in Iraq. In 2004, it was given to the Bush administration [for the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction-related program activities’]. In 2005, it was given to a Bush administration staffer who altered some scientific reports on global warming. In 2006, it was given to Bush again for his Jackson Square speech on Hurricane Katrina and disaster relief.”

The NCTE did, indeed, give the doublespeak award to Bush again in 2006 for the Jackson Square speech, where he remarked: “As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”

A week prior to this speech, Bush signed an executive order suspending the 1931 David-Bacon Act, which allowed federal contractors rebuilding in the aftermath of the hurricane to pay below-market wages.

McQuitty doesn’t believe he’s qualified to comment on hypocrisy or dishonesty, however.

“My personal feeling is that all of us are a little dishonest and a little hypocritical,” he said. “And maybe that’s why we can be tolerant of dishonesty and hypocrisy. However, when people in public life practice dishonesty and hypocrisy in a big way, the effect resounds on public life in a big way.”

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