Last Thursday, as the U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on an amendment to make English the official language of the United States, President Bush’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency was testifying before a Senate committee. Clarity begins at home, it might be said, and before Congress tries its hand at legislating languages, its members and those who testify before its committees should themselves strive for fluency in English.
That was painfully obvious during the hearing on the nomination of General Michael Hayden by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. That name says a lot, doesn’t it? The House Intelligence Committee is widely regarded as an oxymoron, but the Senate apparently has intelligence it brings to bear only on "select" subjects — like raising money for the senators’ reelection campaigns. They might try amending an appropriations bill to add money for English as a Second Language training for senators, generals and bureaucrats in the nation’s capital.
The hearings were expected to focus on the scandal du jour, the recently disclosed news that that the National Security Agency under General Hayden has been secretly gathering the telephone calling records of millions of Americans. I guess you could call that "Datagate."
Not much light was shed on that or any other subject during the hearing, however. Most of the questions had to do with problems at the CIA and how Hayden expected to right the ship. The general frequently answered in that form of bureaucratic language that might be called "Pentagonese." He spoke more than once, for example, of getting situations "deconflicted" and arriving at "deconfliction."
"What does u2018deconflicted’ mean?" the editor of a New Hampshire business publication — an English language publication, I might add — asked me.
"Well I guess it means the resolution of a conflict," I said, hazarding my best semi-educated guess. It was, under the circumstances, the best explanation available to me at that point in time, self-referentially speaking. I mean, I’ve visited Washington and actually spent part of a summer there long ago, but I’ve never really lived there. I’m still a stranger to this kind of talk.
Yes, I admit, I’ve missed a lot of the words of wisdom coming out of Washington, D.C. over the years, including those years when I was living with some of the consequences of Washington’s wisdom, in a place called Vietnam. I was "in country," as was commonly said, through the latter half of 1968, for example, so I missed one of the most entertaining — and frightening — presidential campaigns in history. I do remember following it as much as I could, via overseas editions of Time magazine, through the armed forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and listening to Armed Forces Radio, famous for its daily 6 a.m. greeting, "Good MORNING, Vietnam!" The answer, shouted from thousands of barracks, tents and bunkers throughout the Republic of Vietnam, was in "a language that the strangers do not know."
Surely, you remember, or have heard and read about, the great presidential campaign of 1968. It ended in an early morning cliffhanger between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, which Nixon finally won. But it also featured the best third-party candidacy since Teddy Roosevelt. H. Ross Perot, for all his billions and all his guest appearances on Larry King in 1992, couldn’t hold a candle to former Gov. George Corley Wallace of Alabama in 1968.
Wallace enlivened the "tweedledee" and "tweedledumber" contest between Nixon and Humphrey with his own feisty campaign style, ranting against school busing for integration, PhD’s who couldn’t even "park their bicycles straight" and "poiny-headed in’elleckchuls that look down theyuh nose at plain folks like you an’ me!" He also introduced to the world his running mate, retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay.
The general turned out to be a little too blunt and plainspoken even for Wallace. At a joint news conference, when the general was talking about using the big nuke to bomb North Vietnam “back to the stone age,” Gov. Wallace tried to clarify and, as Gen. Hayden would say, “deconflict” his running mate’s remarks with assurances that began with, “Now what the general said is… and “What the general means is…”
I think that’s what was needed on Capitol Hill last week. Someone to tell us what the "deconflicted" general was really trying to say. All I got out of it was that the general would be "happy" to answer any thorny questions on potentially embarrassing subjects in closed session. That way, neither the general, nor the White House, nor the Congress would have to share with the public — formerly known as "We the People" — what they are doing for us, and quite possibly to us, in our name and with our money.
Somehow, I’m not entirely "deconflicted" over that.
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.