White House wordplay

From the vice president's office to the briefing room, the lexicographic gymnastics continue.


Michael Scherer
June 1, 2006 1:28AM (UTC)

Last June, Dick Cheney made a prediction about the Iraq war. "The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline," the vice president told Larry King on CNN. "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

Last throes. It was rock solid. The sort of phrase you can dress up and take to the party. And the source was solid too. Cheney knows the intelligence. He speaks to the commanders. He had even predicted -- more or less -- the Iraqi reaction to the American invasion. (See "Greeted as Liberators," March 14, 2003, on "Meet the Press.") America was free to rejoice. The war was ending.

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But then something strange happened. Nothing changed in Iraq. The bombs kept blowing up. The body bags kept coming home. A month later, CNN's Wolf Blitzer sat down with Cheney and asked if he still stood by his "last throes" prediction.

Ever the scholar, Cheney pulled out a dictionary. "If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period -- the throes of a revolution." It was, to say the least, a "big-time" letdown. As it turned out, "last throes" was not a phrase you could take to bed.

But the story does not end there. The White House lexicographic campaign continues to this day. This afternoon, a reporter at the White House decided to throw "last throes" at the new press secretary, Tony Snow. "It was a year ago today that Vice President Cheney said that the insurgency there was in its last throes," the reporter pointed out. "And now we have this latest Pentagon assessment saying that the insurgency is going to remain steady."

Snow, who has been learning his job on the fly, did like the vice boss. He pulled out the dictionary. This time, however, he focused on the word "insurgency." Snow explained that Cheney probably didn't mean to suggest that the Iraqi "insurgency" was in its "last throes." In fact, Cheney was talking about the al-Qaida "insurgency." To wit:

"Well, there was a time when -- and I don't want to try to back-interpret what the Vice President said, but let me just offer at least one view on it, which is, for a long time, when we talked about insurgency -- that is, 'we,' generally, Americans -- we thought of al Qaeda. And I think it's pretty safe to say that the al Qaeda and the foreign fighters remnant presence in Iraq has been dramatically reduced, such that, at least, in the opinions of people there, it is no longer the major factor when it comes to what's going on. Now you do have former members of the Saddam regime and you do have Iraqi citizens who are in entrenched opposition and are using terror and other tactics to try to derail democracy."

Note that Snow had the presence of mind to stop midsentence to define the word "we." That is why we call them public servants. They are here to serve. It's a technique I call "equivoque." I suggest you look it up.

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Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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