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Getting to the Crux of Campaign '96: Whatever


After all the votes have been counted, after all the campaign signs have come down and the bumper stickers have shredded, there will still be . . .

. . . Whatever.

That "emphatic variant," as Webster describes the term, will remain as the verbal legacy of the linguistically impoverished 1996 presidential race. Twenty years from now, will anyone remember if the Republicans' proposed tax cut was 12%, 15% or 17%? Will memories strain to remember the parries of the candidates' debates? Will the details of the nicotine imbroglio or targeted tax credits for education or dubious land transactions in Arkansas be lost to time?


Think back to some recent occasions when that functional little phrase--part pronoun, part adjective, part . . . whatever--proved its mettle in speeches by Republican candidate Bob Dole:

Aug. 6: "We're going to match with the states enough to pay tuition--in private schools, public schools, whatever."

Sept. 1: "When people begin to focus, they'll make a judgment on a lot of things, on issues, on what they think of us personally, character, whatever."

Oct. 17: "We ought to be out there reaching out to low-income Americans, giving them a jump-start, regardless of race, color, gender, whatever."

Much like "that vision thing," the phrase patented by former President Bush in 1992, "whatever" joins a long list of expressions that "elicit a whole lot of different kinds of thoughts and feelings," said professor Walter R. Fisher, director of the school of communications at USC. "What gives them currency is the accuracy with which they capture a sense that is in the electorate."

Fisher, author of "Narration of the Human Communication Paradigm" (University of Southern Carolina Press, 1989), has made an extensive study of how "condensed symbols" migrate into mass consciousness. "Whatever" has taken hold, he believes, because "there is a sense that there is no stability, no continuity--that we are sort of floating."

Consciously or not, Fisher continued, Dole latched on to a nebulous morsel of language that reflected what he saw as "the drifting and waffling and contradictions" taking place in the country.

Oct. 15: "I mean, sometimes we forget. We're so wrapped up in politics, what's good for me or whatever, we forget about the genius of America."

For a candidate who spent a lot of time talking about values, his trademark phrase turns out to be loaded with value associations, said UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff about Dole. When "whatever" appears at the end of a Dole list, "very often these are things he doesn't like. These are things that he, as a conservative, has to deal with, but these are not positive things: like 'race, gender, whatever, yuck.'

"You have the feeling that he is supposed to say these things--something like day care, something that is not of central value in his world view," said Lakoff, author most recently of "Moral Politics" (University of Chicago Press, 1996). "It's important to someone else. To him, it's almost dismissive. It's an expression of values in that it tells you what not to value."

Lakoff, who specializes in the cognitive semantics of politics, said that in that sense, Dole's usage derives directly from "the ordinary English word" "whatever." "That word has been around a long time. It's a version of 'what.' In grammar these things are known as absolute relatives, as in, 'I'll do whatever you do.' The 'ever' says it doesn't matter. That's the big thing."

"Whatever" has provided the septuagenarian Dole with a friendly conduit to the younger generation, according to journalist Andrew Sullivan. Writing in the New Republic, Sullivan lauded the Republican presidential aspirant for his "remarkable, revealing and insistent use of that quintessential Xer mantra, 'whatever.' " If the under-35 set does bother to pull itself away from its television sets long enough to vote, Sullivan predicted, "you can almost hear the distant chanting now, as the post-grunge throngs . . . finally get politicized: 'Viva Bob Dole! Viva Bob Dole! Viva, viva, viva, whatever."

By contrast, Sullivan chided, "a 'whatever' barely passes the lips" of the ever-earnest and precise President Clinton. While the president was busy talking about "a bridge to the 21st century," Sullivan contended, Dole was cleverly fashioning "whatever" into a bridge of his own. "Dole can never be mistaken for Dole's thoughts, and Dole's thoughts can never be mistaken for Dole's actions," he noted. " 'Whatever' is Dole's finest expression of this ironic distance."

Of course it could simply be verbal sloppiness. As a lexiconic catch-all, "whatever" displays its multipurpose nature by serving as a handy piece of indeterminate punctuation. "It's sort of like a stall," said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University. "It's a more elegant, more personal way of saying 'um.' "

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