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California and the West

Insurance Scandal Taints a 'God Term'

Politics: 'Outreach' ranked with 'progress' and 'patriotism'--until the Quackenbush controversy, that is.

May 11, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It's such a simple word, a modest, wholesome-sounding little thing. "Outreach." As in reach out. As in help.

Picture armies of heroic souls in the trenches, outreaching away. Hospital workers comforting lonely cancer victims. Churches tending the needy. Cops getting kids off drugs.

But in Sacramento these days, the word "outreach" is a tad besmirched, given the juicy role it plays in the unfolding drama starring Chuck Quackenbush.

Quackenbush is the state's elected insurance commissioner, and he's been doing a lot of outreach lately. A foundation he created with insurance industry money used $1.4 million for "outreach" to "underserved" communities. An additional $3 million went for "outreach" accomplished through TV ads featuring the telegenic Mr. Q.

The trouble is that the money was supposed to go to Northridge earthquake victims. And the outreaching had a distinct political benefit for Quackenbush.

"The notion created by the word is that the benefit is for the outreached," says Stanford University linguist John Rickard, who teaches a class on language in society. "When the outreacher is benefiting, well, that makes the usage suspect."

The concept of "outreach," or "community outreach," has an almost unassailable quality to it--one that exudes selflessness and discourages scrutiny.

Scholars, in fact, include "outreach" on their list of "God terms," those things to which everyone pledges allegiance in America: terms like "progress," "patriotism," "Pilgrims," "Abraham Lincoln." So says John Murphy, who teaches political speech at the University of Georgia.

"God terms have great power to anesthetize our critical instincts," Murphy says. "Community outreach is an excellent example."

"Outreach" also has an appealing vagueness about it: It sounds marvelously noble, but you're never quite sure what it means. That, of course, comes in particularly handy in politics.

"It's an interesting word because it can mean practically anything. It's almost deliberately unclear," notes UC Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff. "In that sense, you can read into it whatever you choose--a very useful thing in politics."

So how did "outreach"--defined literally by most dictionaries as "to go beyond" or "extend out"--morph into the big umbrella term it is today? Briefly put, word meanings often evolve to suit a given time or circumstance. Language is elastic, or, depending on your viewpoint, easily corrupted.

The earliest recorded usage of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was from a document dating to 1568, to wit: "I found the site so good . . . but the making so costlie, outreaching my habilitie."

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier worked it into verse in 1870: "No proof beyond this yearning,/This out-reach of our hearts, we need."

William Safire, the New York Times wordsmith who writes about language, tracked its modern blossoming to the labor movement--specifically, the 1969 "Apprenticeship Outreach program" begun by the AFL-CIO to encourage the hiring of young blacks in the construction trades.

Government heartily embraced the word, and corporate America has gone hog wild with it. A telephone company used a variation in that memorable slogan promoting its long-distance service: "Reach out and touch someone."

And it's a rare corporation that lacks an "outreach coordinator" directing an "outreach initiative" to sprinkle cash--and polish the company image--in the community.

"Community outreach to me is sort of a code word for trying to buy support, trying to buy credibility," says Doug Elmets, a public relations consultant in Sacramento. "Why does a tobacco company give money to the Urban League? Partly because it's a good thing to do. But also because if they're attacked for selling a product that hurts children, somebody might stand up and defend them."

For politicians, outreach is as natural as kissing babies. But most don't call it that. Former Assemblyman Richard Katz says it's just "good community work and good politics."

"Virtually every elected official will spend from $100 to $1,000 to sponsor a float in a parade, provide buses so kids can go to the beach, sponsor church events," Katz says. The difference with Quackenbush, he adds, "is the amount of money and the fact that it was never disclosed to anybody."

Some observers believe the term may be reaching the saturation point, with the Quackenbush affair hastening its demise. No matter how popular a word is, UC Berkeley's Lakoff says, "if someone who uses it gets in trouble, people get suspicious of it."

When that happens, a word can abruptly go from hot to radioactive.

If outreach suffers such a fate, the roots of its decline might be traced to Vice President Al Gore. In 1996, Gore got in a pickle after he claimed a fund-raiser he attended at a Buddhist temple was really just a "community outreach" event.

That's how the event was described on his itinerary. But more than $140,000 was collected at the temple. And some checks changed hands on the premises.

An intriguing mix of church and state . . . all in the name of "community outreach."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Webster's New World usage

Quackenbush's usage

"I was a little surprised at the time but I thought in the

broad context of things it fit into what we were trying to

do in outreach to underserved communities."

--Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, April 12 interview

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