Olivia Nuzzi in New York Magazine: “How the White House Polices Language in Washington”

From a story in New York magazine by Olivia Nuzzi headlined “How the White House Polices Language in Washington”:

At Wilmington Country Club recently, after playing his first round of golf as president, Joe Biden engaged in another cherished pastime: He made a gaffe. Speaking to reporters, Biden used the term crisis to refer to the state of the U.S.-Mexico border, where historic numbers of desperate migrants have arrived — urged, in some cases, by smugglers who promise that the new president is unlike the old one, that this one will let them in….

This was a casual…break with months of linguistic contortions from his administration, whose officials have insisted the word crisis does not apply to the border. “We’ve been calling it ‘challenging,’ and it is,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told me. The issue — can we call it an issue? The White House probably prefers subject — has provided a glimpse into the messaging machinations surrounding the president and the unusual degree to which his staff seeks to control the narrative (and often succeeds) by controlling the press and the president himself. It has also emphasized how a highly particular and rigid approach to language is a form of governing itself, just as a careless and inflammatory one was under Donald Trump.

Challenge connotes a problem for which its solvers may bear no blame. Original sin is a challenge. Crisis implies contemporary fuckups. It suggests spiraling, breakdowns in the system, and the people who work for the new president happen to love systems. This is the return to normalcy: The professionals are back in the building — hyper-sensitive and type A — and Washington sure feels tense….

Trump called the media the enemy of the people, but all politicians hate the media who cover them. Biden’s PR professionals like to think of themselves as killers, and they still resent the harsh coverage the president received during the Democratic primary. The biggest staffer scandal this White House has endured to date involved a deputy press secretary threatening a female reporter and taunting her about her sex life. (He eventually was given the opportunity to resign, which is how you spin firing someone to make it sound less scandalous.)…

During the Trump years, it was amusing how often it was possible to report with a straight face that the president said one thing while the White House said another, as though he was just some guy who happened to hang around there. But this odd dynamic persists into the Biden era. The day after the golf outing, Psaki attempted to clarify: It was not the position of the White House that the border was in crisis; Biden had meant to refer to the circumstances everywhere prior to migrants’ arrival at the border….It’s a crisis until it reaches American soil, in other words, then it’s a challenge.

Reporters and opponents were quick to call this spin “backtracking,” an incremental and mildly interesting development that passes for high drama in the new boring season of Washington. Mitch McConnell mocked Biden for getting “overruled by his own staff.” But the White House pressure on language continued. On April 19, the administration circulated memos to immigration agencies dictating official changes to terminology. Alien would become noncitizen or migrant, assimilation would change to integration, and illegal would be replaced by undocumented….

At a certain point, the White House’s strict jargon rules had the Streisand effect: The insistence that the border wasn’t a crisis led to more talk of a crisis. Few fair critics would have blamed Biden, in the early months of the administration, for a problem that has stumped presidents of both parties, but bossing people around over word choice opened him up to criticism. The crisis crisis, one person close to the White House said, reflects the way things tend to work around the president. Orders come down from the few people in his inner circle, and the officials who implement them are often left with no way to alter their approach when something doesn’t work. It’s a cliquish and secretive environment….

There’s a certain sadness to the fact that Biden, whose mythology is neatly organized around speech — his journey from childhood stutterer to veep who wouldn’t shut up — had to tame his essential self in order to finally become president. “Everybody’s strength is their weakness, in politics as in life,” the strategist David Axelrod said. “His strength is he’s always spoken his mind. There’s a genuineness to that. There’s also a danger. In politics as in sports, you want to maximize your principal’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. They’ve effectively maximized his earnestness and decency. They’ve not allowed him to be in situations where he can stray.”…

This reminded me of something William Safire once wrote describing how the administration of George H.W. Bush had screwed him over to neuter a damaging story: “What a joy it is to see really professional media manipulation.”

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