Washington's Deceptions

By Begala, Paul | Newsweek, December 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Washington's Deceptions


Begala, Paul, Newsweek


Byline: Paul Begala

'Reform' taxes? 'Fix' Medicare? Yeah, right.

"Political speech and writing," George Orwell wrote in a biting and brilliant critique, "are largely the defense of the indefensible." The most political of writers bemoaned the fact that "political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Orwell was reacting to the desperate euphemisms employed by members of the British intelligentsia in his day who had taken to defending the indefensible savagery of Stalinism, but there are plenty of examples in today's debate over America's debt.

I tried to persuade Bill Clinton to mock one of today's more egregious euphemisms--the Republicans' use of words like "fix" to describe what they want to do to Medicare--as he prepared his speech to the Democratic National Convention in September. Here's the line I pitched him: "Every time I hear Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan say they want to 'fix' Medicare, it reminds me of when that veterinarian said he wanted to 'fix' my old dog Buddy. But it was not a fix. It was a cut, and there's a difference."

Our former president, you may be comforted to know, thought it best not to include in one of the most important speeches of the election a dog-castration joke. But the point I was trying to make remains important: beware of euphemisms--they mask mischief.

Republicans don't want to "fix" Medicare or "reform" Medicare. And Lord knows they don't want to "modernize" it or--as the deeply disingenuous Paul Ryan says--"protect and strengthen Medicare." No, they want to end it. Newt Gingrich showed admirable clarity of language in 1996 when he said of the agency that financed Medicare, "We believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it." When something withers on the vine, it dies.

Far too often the press simply accepts partisans' preferred euphemisms. For decades countries that traded freely with America were given a status called "Most Favored Nation." When I worked in the Clinton White House we sought such status for the People's Republic of China. But can you really call the land of Mao, the place of forced abortions and the mass murder in Tiananmen Square, a "Most Favored Nation"?

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