Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster


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Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.

Is Barack Obama ‘Black’?

From a February 20 story on Newsmax.com:

[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]

I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.

Who knew?

Blackness defined

By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.

It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”

Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”

Why it matters

In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.

In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:

(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.

(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.

(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.

Is Barack Obama ‘black’?

Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.

It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.

“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.

I and Thou

I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).  

“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”

I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)

When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.

I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.

Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”


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Sen. Clinton, Former Swim Champ, Not Ducking Out

Small talk about a May 19 Reuters story by Ellen Wulfhorst…

1. “None of us is going to have the number of delegates we’re going to need to get to the nomination, although I understand [that] my opponent and his supporters are going to claim that,” Clinton, a New York senator, said in Maysville.

Kudos is due to Senator Clinton. Most people, speaking off the cuff, would have said, “None of us are going to have….” Most people would have erred. None, as a contraction of no one, takes a singular verb, as does kudos, which means “praise.” Erred, by the way, rhymes with “bird,” not “bared.”

2. “I’m going to make my case and I’m going to make it until we have a nominee, but we’re not going to have one today and we’re not going to have one tomorrow and we’re not going to have one the next day,” said Clinton, a former first lady.

All right. I can accept the parenthetical “a New York senator” in paragraph 1. I suppose there might be a reader who needs that vital information, perhaps someone who has just returned from a stint as an anchorite on one of the Outer Hebrides. But is it really necessary to add that Senator Clinton is “a former first lady” in paragraph 2, given that the aside isn’t even relevant to the context?

If so, then let’s be thorough: “If Kentucky turns out tomorrow, I will be closer [to the nomination],” said Clinton, a former child.

3. “Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted. Declaring
[‘]mission accomplished[‘] does not make it so,” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.

Ah, but so often it does. If it walks like a candidate, if it talks like a candidate, if it looks like a candidate….

Find the best no-nonsense business-writing, branding, and marketing-communication advice in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, available at www.LifeIsPoetry.net.


We, We, We, All the Way Home

This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country. Because we all agree that at this defining moment in history — a moment when we’re facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril — we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term. We need change in America. —Barack Obama, North Carolina primary-election victory speech, May 7

Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!… We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. —The Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Doesn’t it just make you squirm when speakers and writers use the word we as if they’re talking about you, as in, “We Americans have gotten too comfortable, too complacent, with our 9-to-5 jobs and our weekend lakeside retreats…”?

And you’re in the audience, and you’ve just been fired from your eighty-hour-a-week job, or you’re late on the rent of your four-hundred-square-foot walkup, or you recently lost a spouse or a dear friend and the last thing you’re feeling is complacent.

Too many writers and speakers use we irresponsibly. It misleads, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident.

Senator Obama announces, “We intend to march forward as one Democratic Party….” For whom is he speaking? It’s not clear.

The rest of the paragraph is a throwaway. Which moment in history is not, in one way or another, “defining”? And of course we need change in America. We always need change in America. Right now I’m thinking we need a three-party system in America.



The Reverend Mr. Wright, in the paragraph quoted above, doesn’t mean we at all. He means they, the unenlightened, the selfish, the blind, the powerful. Using the word we might be a nod to humility, as if he means, “We as a society, and I’m a member of that society, so I’m guilty, too.” Might be. From what I know about the Rev. Mr. Wright, humility isn’t a conspicuous trait.

I never trust we statements, and the phrase “in our society” puts my back up. Americans are a bunch of oddballs, really, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. “Our society” has only as much power as we, individually, one at a time, give it.

Find answers to your writing questions in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.
Got a question? Leave a comment!

The Thing Is Is

In a Tuesday news conference, Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama responded to comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Monday. Wright had said, among other things, “Based on [the] Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” including introducing the AIDS virus into the black community as a form of genocide.

Senator Obama’s reaction: “All it was was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.”

Why would a well-educated, manifestly articulate public figure such as Barack Obama use the clumsy phrase “All it was was…”?

All it was was is a cousin to the common construction the thing is is. How troublesome such word combinations must be to nonnative English-speakers who are trying to learn the language.

Here’s the thing: The little groupings the thing is and all it was have become, essentially, familiar noun phrases—roughly synonymous with “the crux of the matter” or “what it boils down to.”  So familiar are these colloquialisms that they are easily processed by American minds, as follows:

SUBJECT: All it was
VERB: was

Senator Obama might better have said, “What it amounted to was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.” But speaking under duress and off the cuff, any of us might have used the less graceful syntax.

In fact, in Senator Obama’s position, I, the Writing Queen, might have used less felicitous language, along the lines of, “All it was was a noisome mass of bovine fecal matter.” Or words to that effect.

  • Got a question about grammar, syntax, or bovine fecal matter? Please leave a comment.
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Term Limits

Walter Reed Hospital, 1930s‘Universal Health Care’ Is None of the Above

The Democrat presidential candidates seem to be for it. Not Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate. Republicans, some Democrats like to suggest, are uninterested in children’s health. One critic mistakenly said that Republicans are disinterested in children’s health. Disinterested means “unbiased,” as in, “To sort this thing out we need a mediator—a disinterested third party.”

What, exactly, is “universal health care”?

Universal is problematic. The United States is not the universe. It’s not even the center of the universe. But we’ll let that one go for now.

When senators Clinton and Obama talk about universal health care, they really mean universal health insurance. According to the New York Times election guide,

Senator Clinton “[would] require everyone to get health insurance, subsidized by employers and the government; pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 and savings in the existing system.”

Senator Obama “[would] require that all children have health insurance; pay for it by rolling back President Bush’s tax cuts for households earning over $250,000; aims for universal coverage.”

Senator McCain “[is] for free-market, consumer-based system; has pledged affordable health care for every American without a mandate; says universal health care is possible without a tax increase.”

Universal health care is available today

Apart from Medicaid, there are thousands of free or sliding-scale clinics in the U.S. Some are operated by religious and other nonprofit organizations, others by  municipalities, counties, states, and, of course, the Veterans’ Administration. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration subsidizes more than a thousand nonprofit health-care facilities for the poor and the uninsured.

I have gone to the same HRSA-subsidized clinic for five years, first when I was broke and uninsured, and then when I had a well-paying job with health insurance. A pharmacy attached to the clinic gives huge discounts on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but only to the uninsured. With insurance, I paid about twice as much for each doctor visit and prescription.

Universal coverage isn’t the answer

America’s “health-care crisis” has a lot less to do with access than it does with the managed-care “delivery” model. Strictly speaking, the term managed care describes any health-care system that, by placing intermediaries between providers and patients, controls services and costs. At the same time, Medicare and private insurance companies impose tremendous burdens on hospitals and clinics in the form of convoluted reporting and coding requirements. One estimate of the annual cost of coding errors, accidental or deliberate, is just under $200 billion.

I’m not an expert on health care or public policy, but I do know a thing or two about manipulating language in order to mislead. What’s more, I can add. Once upon a time, when patients paid their own medical bills, the doctors got their money. Now patients are paying insurance companies, and the doctors are still getting their money. Do the math.

Images: TOP, Walter Reed Hospital postcard, 1930s. LEFT, doctor making a house call.

Got a grammar question? Leave a comment.

Learn more about language in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, available at LifeIsPoetry.net.


Obama, Clinton, McCain Speeches: A Hasty and Lopsided Assessment

This evening I examined one speech from each of the three leading presidential candidates’ websites. I compared the three documents for style, readability, substance, and other, more subtle, characteristics.

The evaluation was far from scientific or conclusive. For one thing, the speeches were presented to different types of audiences for different purposes. For another, my judgment is clouded by my strong preference for one of the candidates. And plucking one speech, more or less at random, off each candidate’s website can hardly be considered a fair basis for comparison.

Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my assessment:

Senator Obama

And to those who think that the decline in American manufacturing is inevitable; or that manufacturing has no place in a 21st century economy; we say right here and right now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future. And that’s why we’ll modernize our steel industry, strengthen our entire domestic manufacturing base, and open as many markets as we can to American manufactured goods when I’m President.

Grade for substance: B
Grade for style: A
Grade for readability: A (2,760 words, 5% passive voice, 63 Flesch reading ease, 9th-grade reading level)

Overall, Senator Obama’s speech is the best of the three, hands down—and my approval doesn’t reflect my bias. Senator Obama is not my candidate of choice. Even so, there’s no denying that the speech is articulate, energetic, and upbeat. It’s well structured, with plenty of meat on its bones, and it contains very little opponent-bashing.

In fact, philosophy and politics aside, I have only one criticism of Senator Obama as a speaker. I had originally chosen another of the senator’s speeches to critique. In that speech, and to a lesser extent in the one selected, he refers to himself in the plural: “We say right here and now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future.”

Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as “Richard Nixon” and as “we” or “us,” as though there were several of him. Why do public figures do that? Inflated ego? Reluctance to assume individual responsibility? I don’t know, but I don’t quite trust the arrogance that use of the “royal we” suggests.

On the other hand, I have to give Senator Obama points for minimal use of the passive voice. Not only do passive-voice constructions lack clarity, they also imply evasion of responsibility, as in “Mistakes were made.”  

Senator McCain

If that authority is entrusted to me, I will use the veto as needed, and as the Founders intended. I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks. I will seek a constitutionally valid line-item veto to end the practice once and for all. I will lead across-the-board reforms in the federal tax code, removing myriad corporate tax loopholes that are costly, unfair, and inconsistent with a free-market economy.

Grade for substance: A
Grade for style: B
Grade for readability: B (4,137 words, 17% passive voice, 53 Flesch reading ease, 11th-grade reading level)

I chose the excerpt above because it illustrates the specificity of Senator McCain’s positions on the issues. Although the excerpt is a litany of “I wills,” the speech as a whole is not egocentric. (Senator Clinton actually wins the “me, me, me” championship, referring to herself more often than do either of her opponents.) Senator McCain mentions his opponents numerous times, generally to show how their views differ from his, not to chew them up and spit them out.

Senator McCain is articulate enough, but Senator Obama owns the sound bite. 

Senator Clinton

I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfill their God-given potential, and to build better lives for themselves and their children. That’s the kind of president I will be every day in the White House, whether the issue is health care or child care, foreign policy, or the future of our economy…. I am running for president because I believe in the promise of America and I believe in the power of the presidency to help fulfill that promise…. It’s what I have learned, experienced and intended, as best I could, throughout my life. I’ve had many opportunities. I’ve been blessed. And I understand that those blessings came from the hard work of my parents, my teachers, others in the village that surrounded and helped to nurture and raise me; my church, which helped to guide me; and, of course, the positive actions of my government that directly affected my life.

Grade for substance: B-
Grade for style: B-
Grade for readability: B- (4,013 words, 8% passive voice, 49 Flesch reading ease, 12th-grade reading level)

Senator Clinton’s speech has an off-the-cuff feel to it, and, if it was indeed extemporaneous, the senator deserves higher grades. I doubt, however, that there is much left to chance at this point in her campaign.

To her credit, Senator Clinton doesn’t even mention her opponents. Of course, that might be because she’s too busy talking about herself.

Strategically, Senator Clinton being the media-designated Nanny-State Candidate, it might be injudicious for her to make such a point of using “the power of the presidency… to solve the problems of Americans.”  Just a few sentences later, she again refers to “the power of the presidency.” Unfortunately, she has just finished berating George W. Bush for abusing the power of the presidency, which raises doubts about her grasp of such nuances and their implications.


Senator Obama’s is the best speech, followed by Senator McCain’s and then by Senator Clinton’s. I’d rank their websites in the same order. Visiting Senator Clinton’s site, in particular, is a bit like going through an obstacle course where you have to jump through, climb over, and veer around all the solicitations for funds before you can get any actual information.

GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net