By Harlan Ullman
Language is a quite remarkable reflection of society and its attitudes. After the Vietnam War and a succession of operational and procurement failures, “the Pentagon” became a term of derision and a public symbol of incompetence. Today, the opposite is true. The Pentagon is seen as representing the most highly regarded sector of American society—the military— though perhaps the perception has swung too far in that direction in lavishing praise especially when the Department must contend with huge and painful budget cuts likely to damage its image.
“Gay” is no longer an adjective. In earlier generations, a “gay, old time” was part of the popular lexicon, meaning happy or fun. The “gay” ‘90’s of more than a century ago certainly would not qualify for the “gay” 90’s of today. It is unclear why or how this change transpired. Yet, it is reflective of the changing attitudes towards sexuality in America.
But more diabolical is the effect of negative political ads on the public and its lexicon. Negative advertising is about turning an opponent’s strengths into political weaknesses and disadvantages. During the Vietnam War, the U. S. Navy operated “Swift” boats in and around the rivers and coasts. In the many dangerous interiors of South Vietnam, heroism and courage were rules and not exceptions. And for those of us who served in these fifty foot aluminum hulled boats, being a “Swiftie” was a term of pride and honorable service.
In 2004, Senator John Kerry’s run for the presidency was blackened by a vile series of false attack ads impugning his courage and integrity. Despite non-combat service in the Air National Guard, George W. Bush and his team successfully attacked what should have been one of Kerry’s strengths—his war record and multiple Purple Hearts for combat wounds. This obscenity was called “Swift-boating.”
In 1960, even the hint of Swift-boating was off limits. Senator John Kennedy campaigned in part on his heroic skippering PT-109 during World War II even though his boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in the middle of night—either an accident or commentary on the vigilance of his crew. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson ran touting his Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor in combat. Everyone in town knew that the citation grossly exaggerated the facts. Yet, neither Richard Nixon, himself a Navy veteran of the war or Barry Goldwater, a retired Air Force brigadier general in the reserve would have thought of attacking Kennedy or Johnson on those grounds even if there were truth and merit.
The name Wall Street has fallen casualty and become toxic due both to spectacular failure and political opportunism. For decades and despite the Great Depression, Wall Street was once a term of awe, the engine for powering much of America’s businesses and more often than not with admiration. Many of the nation’s best and brightest flocked to Wall Street and the banking sector. They still might flock. But, at a cost and amidst public opprobrium.
Today, scandals over once highly respected institutions beginning with the Enron mess in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008 with the fall of the great house of Lehman, Bear-Sterns and many others, the name Wall Street has become an epithet, amplified by charges and public perceptions of the excesses of greed and illegality as well as precipitating a near economic collapse.
Wall Street, of course, is front and center in the presidential campaign manifested in Bain Capital, the successful private equity fund that made Mitt Romney a very wealthy man. Bain was about earning money for its investors and itself. Romney claimed that Bain created jobs and based on that experience he was fitter to be president than Barrack Obama.
The Obama team fell on Bain and has tried to turn Romney’s success into electoral weakness. That this is politics is fair game. But the debate will likely distort the role of private equity and turn that phrase into another symbol of corruption and greed.
Last, Facebook is an interesting case. That it could turn a perfectly good noun, friend, into a verb, to friend, is modestly amusing. What is less humorous is if Facebook’s badly botched IPO and the $100 billion valuation turn out to be precursors of a bubble that bursts. Will this cause a change in our vocabulary of “friending” just as Watergate will never be known as an apartment and hotel complex in Washington, D.C.?
Changes in the meaning of names are neither good nor bad. But one observation is clear. The more politics turns an opponent’s strengths into weaknesses, this creeping contagion will infect broader chunks of society. If what’s in a word is shorthand for where our society is headed, America is on a troubling course. One hopes Messer Obama and Romney are listening.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.