KENT WARD

Walking it back to kick the can

Posted June 15, 2012, at 3:40 p.m.

A favorite buzz phrase of politicians and other talking heads on cable television talk shows at the moment is the shopworn “walk it back,” which describes an attempt by someone who has made an outrageous statement to put a better spin on the deal when given the opportunity for a do-over.

Thus, after President Barack Obama caused widespread bewilderment recently when he insisted in a campaign speech that the private sector is “doing just fine” despite the current economic malaise, the public outcry was said to have forced him to reappear on camera to tone down his eyebrow-raising assertion — to “walk it back.”

I suppose if this current cliche of choice makes us forget the previously overworked favorite in our political speech — the “kick-the-can-down-the-road” abomination that few politicians have the willpower to resist — it will count for something. Near as I can tell, the hackneyed can-kicking line means putting off until tomorrow what should be done today.

It was near impossible to watch television during the past winter’s session of a dysfunctional Congress without hearing about the can-kicking tendencies of the stooges on the wrong side of the argument. As a result, it was easy to imagine agitated viewers contemplating making the image go away by heaving heavy objects at television screens the country over.

“Double down” is another phrase the talking heads have made toxic by overuse. Rather than walk back his outrageous claim that his nemesis in the Senate is beholden to his wealthy backers in the billionaire class when it comes to tax reform legislation, Sen. Blowhard is said to have chosen to double down.

I’m guessing that means that the old reprobate has brazenly repeated his outlandish charge and added extra vitriol for good measure, thereby making his crime twice as heinous. But I could be wrong about that, because the bizarre image that came to mind when I first heard “double down” was of an extra ration of soft, fluffy duck feathers having been stuffed into the lining of an L.L. Bean ski parka.

“In the weeds” is a reference that has gained traction on the cable television circuit. The concoction suggests that some point being made by a panelist is mysteriously obscure and impossible to understand by anyone save nerds who thrive on examining minor details.

Trite phrases and expressions have been around seemingly forever, the bane of connoisseurs of finely tuned language. But while many people at least make an effort to avoid cliches, written or spoken, politicians and talk-show people seem to embrace the trite characterizations with enthusiasm.

Readers who remember the Watergate scandal that erupted 40 years ago this weekend and the subsequent court proceedings that attached to the aborted presidential reign of Richard M. Nixon will recall the redundant clunker “at this point in time” coined and subsequently worked to death during those dark days. Once the conspirators and co-conspirators involved in the Watergate lashup began using the phrase to excess the general public picked up on it, flogging it for years before embracing the next contagious construction born of our political speech.

The prosecution’s obligatory question asked time and again of witnesses during Watergate — essentially “What did you know, and when did you know it?” — remains a staple of judicial proceedings.

“Stonewall” and “launder” and “deep-six” are among words inherited from Watergate that have gained legitimate berths in the national vocabulary as implications of obstruction and deceit.

“It is a fitting irony that under Richard Nixon ‘launder’ became a dirty word,” wrote word maven William Zinsser in his book “On Writing Well,” a classic writers’ reference published three decades ago.

“Today when we hear that someone laundered his funds in Mexico to hide the origin of the money and the route that it took, the word has a precise meaning,” the former New York Times columnist and author wrote. “It’s short, it’s vivid, and we need it.”

Whether the same might someday be said for “walk it back” and “double down” and other hard-worked expressions is unknown. Television’s talking heads have shown they would be challenged to get by without the cliches. But the public seems ambivalent about deciding the matter just now, apparently content to continue kicking the can down the road.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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