Depends on What the Meaning of the Word 'Is' (Surge) Is

08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What strikes me as most appalling about John McCain's recent quotes on the surge is how he is trying to manipulate language. And not in any elegant manner. He is essentially attempting to muddy the waters, redefine what up till now has been a very clear set of events with a very clear time-line. Just because the Anbar Awakening and the surge have tactical and temporal overlap and linear goals doesn't make them one in the same, as McCain has suggested.

Here's how McCain phrased it yesterday (one of multiple definitions of surge he has now given) during the now famous "Surge n' Cheese statement": "First of all, a surge is really a counterinsurgency strategy." Spencer Ackerman takes down the details of why this statement is absurd, why McCain's conflation underscores a fundamental misunderstanding, dare I say a mistranslation, of what the surge means and has meant, both in words and in practice. But his shifting words matter greatly in this situation. For instance, McCain's new definition of surge undercuts his entire argument for a "surge" in Afghanistan. With our counter-insurgency efforts there having been implemented in the days after we deposed the Taliban, haven't we already been surging there for years. Under this rubric, why is McCain calling for another surge?

But there is a more fundamentally disturbing point here: McCain, like both his predecessors, is walking down the path of language manipulation. Every politician does it, to some degree, but the causal traps the most egregious violators of this time-honored political tradition fall into usually has one of three derivations: they are actively lying to cover their mistakes, they are cleverly manipulating reality in order to shift both perspective and opinion to conform to their worldview, or they are simply aimlessly wrong, due to either incredulity or idiocy, without any active effort to be so. Over the past 16 years, we've precariously walked down the presidential path with the first two points. Would a John McCain Presidency mean we'd be walking down the third?

Bill Clinton was a master manipulator on the language front, obviously sometimes to his own detriment. But while his lies and misleading statements always had a tinge of political tarnish to it, his most famous statements always seemed to come back to covering up for personal missteps and mistakes. Manipulative, yes. But somehow, less nefarious, at least from a national perspective than George W. Bush. While Clinton's shading of the truth was always unpalatable, we could weather the sourness as long as the country maintained its prosperous projection. Not so for Bush, who's wallowed and thrived in the gray area of language for his entire presidency. He has been masterful at manipulating language in order to suit the political aspirations of his presidency, whether it's been selling the country on war in Iraq, on warrantless surveillance, on maintaining a rosy outlook during dire economic times, or most infamously, co-opting the Nazi era phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung," or "enhanced interrogation," in order to justify his torture regime. But for McCain, with multiple gaffes on his once-hallowed political ground of national security, what to make of his winding description and shifting definition of the surge?

It might seem, to the press at least, as just another gaffe in a growing line of many for McCain. But the language itself sounds familiar. In fact, John McCain speaking about the surge this week has sounded a lot like Bill Clinton during the heyday of the Monica Lewinsky scandal: It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' (surge) is. The only difference is the stakes are far higher now in dealing with a war than with adultery. But in both instances, the manipulation of words, whether active or passive, matter.

Language, in its essence, is not just an objective expression of the world as it is, but the world as one perceives it, and John McCain's words in this instance betray a fundamentally skewed perspective of the world. And whether he is playing with phrases on purpose to cover up for mistakes, shifting statements for political gain, or simply doesn't know what he is talking about (which seems to be the likely reason), it personifies a dangerous trait that shouldn't be diminished in importance.

George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." In John McCain, America can't afford another President whose corrupted thought and corrupted language stand as an impediment to solving the serious problems that we face as a country.