11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Wordiness, Godliness and Truthiness: The McCain-Palin Assault on Language

Once in our political history, wordiness was next to godliness. Really. As Sarah Vowell reminds us in The Wordy Shipmates, her wry, unlikely bestseller -- unless you think the world was hungry for a witty book about New England's 17th century Puritans -- one of many differences between the Puritans and us is that they were "overwhelmingly, fantastically literary." True, it was their Bible obsession that made them revere words, and that's not something I want to encourage; the blurring of Church and State is among the faith-based Bush administration's damaging legacies. But like most writers I have no problem worshipping words; they're a handy religion-substitute.

All these centuries later, the McCain-Palin campaign is demonizing language and not just using it with that politics-as-usual slipperiness. In theory and practice, they are attacking the idea of clear, graceful language itself. John McCain accuses Barack Obama of "eloquence" as if it's something sinister. "I admire his eloquence, but you have to pay attention to words," McCain said in the third debate, using it as a codeword for "emptiness" or some kind of deceit. In speeches he warns -- and it is spoken as a warning -- that we need to look closely at Obama's words. (Actually, they hold up very well.)

Recently a McCain advisor lectured reporters that "words do matter" to the campaign, a whopper right up there with saying Obama pals around with terrorists. Or is it socialists? Terrorists, socialists, whatever. Those terms might be interchangeable (the any-slur-that-sticks strategy) because words really don't mean anything to the McCain-Palin team. Want proof? Randy Scheunemann, the advisor who used the "words do matter" line, was at the time trying to wrangle Obama's statement that he'd refine his Iraq strategy into an entirely different meaning, that he'd flip-flop all over the place. The charge that Obama is all rhetoric and no substance has evaporated during the long campaign, so this attack on his language -- his "fancy speeches" as a new McCain ad puts it -- is one of the things that makes McCain look so out of touch and desperate today.

Denigrating language is, of course, easy after all these years of George "Malapropism" Bush. And when the McCain camp plants suspicion of eloquence, it's obviously playing to anti-intellectual, anti-elitist attitudes. That's where Sarah Palin comes in. Her attack on language is even broader and trickier than McCain's, because you have to sort out when Palinspeak is Orwellian, and when it's just Palin being her confoundingly inarticulate self. As Tina Fey described one of Palin's rambling answers during the Katie Couric interview, she "got lost in a corn maze"; sometimes she needs a GPS to find her way out of her own sentences.

Then there's the deliberate attempt to reassign meaning. In Palinspeak when she's asked questions she doesn't like she's being "censored" by the media (yes, she used the word "censor" when complaining to friendly Fox Newsman Sean Hannity). When she's challenged on the hypocrisy of being a hockey mom modeling a $150,000. wardrobe, her henchwoman Elizabeth Hasselbeck cries it's "sexist." But whether she's obfuscating or just plain lost, Palin's wordiness resembles Stephen Colbert's concept of truthiness: asserting something makes it so, no need to connect statements with pesky things like facts. To the McCain-Palin campaign, words are either malleable or as empty as Palin's robotic repetition of nonsense phrases like "team of mavericks." (Unless you're a basketball player, what kind of maverick joins a team?). All this wordy subterfuge from a campaign that dares to put "Straight Talk" on the side of its plane.

Talking straight is often a reflection of thinking straight, so being lost in that corn maze is a very troubling sign. Obama, as his two books show, is a lucid and at times poetic writer, which at least suggests that his thoughts are clear and maybe soaring. He might even make it safe for Americans to be literary and eloquent again. After all, we have a tradition of revering language that lived past the Puritans. Jefferson was an eloquent guy and the other founders liked that about him. The association of McCain-Palin with the phrase "straight talk," though, is a crooked use of words.