Spoken Like A True Leader

Authors David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon highlight examples of speech patterns among politicians:

Take “my good friend”—politician-speak for somebody he or she often can’t stand. “My good friend” is most commonly used on the House or Senate floors when addressing a colleague. Usually it’s a thinly veiled way of showing contempt for the other lawmaker while adhering to congressional rules of decorum. When Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Texas first arrived on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, he recalled, “The joke we had was, when someone calls you their good friend, look behind you. I try not to say it unless people really are my good friends.’”

A linguistic cousin of “my good friend” is another term favored by an older generation of House members:

“minimum high regard.” Former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who held several Democratic leadership positions during his tenure from 1979 to 2005, turned us on to this time-honored knock against political foes. Frost recalled “one House member saying to another during floor debate: ‘I hold the gentleman in minimum high regard.’” Frost helpfully translated the phrase for us: “It means, ‘You are an idiot.’”

There’s also “counterproductive,” which, as Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott told National Public Radio, is “a word we use here in Washington to mean ‘stupid.’” And lawmakers have found they can get away with almost anything if they preface it with, “With all due respect.” That’s just what Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen did in a December 2013 MSNBC interview chiding Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul that Congress would be doing a “disservice” to workers by extending unemployment benefits. “With all due respect to Sen. Rand Paul, that is a ridiculous argument,” said Van Hollen.

Mark and McCutcheon’s new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, is available here.