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John McCain’s War with Words

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John McCain’s War with Words

Politicians must always choose their words wisely. Words, even more so than images, help brand a politician and sell his or her agenda. It’s a clever bit of marketing that goes as far back as Aristotle, who explained that trust and wisdom are key components of persuasion, and it’s employed every day on Madison Avenue. Even apolitical entities like the military use fancy words like “redeployment” to disguise the reality of retreat and defeat. When words are used to intentionally confuse, manipulate or mislead people, however, that’s when choosing your words carefully quickly turns into propaganda.

The Bush administration has been especially crafty in choosing words and constructing phrases to further its agenda. The word “surge” was introduced into the public lexicon early last year when George W. Bush attempted to sell his escalation of the war in Iraq to a skeptical and war-fatigued nation. Last week, Mr. Bush—who has been utterly opposed to setting any kind of timetable for withdrawal from Iraq—finally agreed to such a timetable after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made it clear that the time for U.S. forces to exit was nearing. Of course, he didn’t use the words timetable or timeframe; he used the painstakingly chosen phrase “time horizon.”

Bush’s (ab)use of words has been pretty transparent. It’s kind of like a little kid denying he’s been stealing cookies from the cookie jar when he’s got crumbs all over his face. John McCain, however, has a different problem with words: there are the ones that regrettably slip out of his mouth (“Maybe that’s a way of killing them,” he said in jest when informed by a reporter that cigarette imports to Iran have increased); there are the ones that come in the form of alleged past misogynistic jokes (about Chelsea Clinton’s appearance, about how women enjoy being beaten and raped); there are the ones that are misstated (about his own voting record with U.S. war veterans, about the difference between foreign terrorists and native insurgents, about where Afghanistan and Iraq are located, about which football team’s names he used to mislead his captors in Vietnam); and then there are the ones he can’t seem to find at all (about his voting record on birth control and insurance companies).

During an interview with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News on Monday night, McCain was asked about Barack Obama’s assessment of the escalation—err, surge. McCain asserted that without the surge, the Sunni Awakening—the uprising of former insurgents against al-Qaeda—would not have been possible, completely ignoring the fact that the surge was implemented months after the awakening began. (His answer, it should be noted, was delivered with a self-satisfied smirk.) For reasons unknown, CBS edited out McCain’s response and replaced it with an answer from earlier in the interview, in which McCain once again repeated his claim that Obama is willing to lose the war in order to win the election.

During a press conference today, McCain attempted to explain away his gaffe by claiming that he was using a much broader, until-now-unspoken definition of the word “surge,” which encompasses the U.S.-led counter-insurgency in the Anbar province of Iraq that began months before Bush ever even introduced the idea of the surge to the public—and even longer before the additional troops (most of which were sent to Baghdad, not Anbar) arrived in Iraq. Aside from the convenient presence of the word “surge” in “insurgency,” the two events were all but entirely independent. Watching McCain dig himself deeper into that proverbial hole made a universal truth even truthier: When you play with words, the words usually win.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.