Must-Read Book: The new language of Politics by William Safire


Did you ever find money on the street? No matter how small the amount I always think it’s going to be a good day when I find money. Let’s be honest, it’s usually pennies, but every now and again you find something a little bit more – like a euro, or maybe even two.


I often daydream about what would happen if I found a small amount of money and it changed my life. How would that happen? Surely, it’s completely implausible? Imagine if you bought a winning lottery ticket with it, or you bought a newspaper or magazine that contained some extraordinary wisdom that changed your life.


One day about 15 years ago I was going for a walk through the streets of Bantry in County Cork. I grew up in a small town in the West of Ireland and I absolutely love towns. There is something really compelling about the ecosystem of a town – each one exists like a principality with its own back story, sense of community, shared history and niche. 


Every town is good at something – isn’t it? Bantry straddles it’s famous Atlantic Bay and still has a bustle, and energy often missing from many Irish towns. There are a series of narrow streets off it’s main square, jammed full of local shops. I was walking around killing time on a summer’s day when I spotted a €2 coin on the ground. I picked it up (of course I did) and put it in the place I always put discovered coins – the small pocket (the watch pocket) of my jeans. 

I walked up the street and into a second hand bookshop on the Glengarriff Road. The name of it escapes me now, but it was one of those fusty old second hand bookshops with suitcases full of old books. 


After a short rummage, there staring out at me was this book by William Safire. My attention was arrested by the sleeve of the hardback first edition. I was working as a communications advisor to a Government Minister at the time. And it was all relevant. It was on sale for the king’s ransom of €2. I freed my loot that I won off Bantry’s streets and went off down the town smiling with my new communications treasure. 


William Safire was one of the original spin doctors and one of the early practitioners of modern Public Relations. He worked for two Richard Nixon campaigns, as a presidential speech writer and for other senior Republicans. He then went on to a distinguished career as a columnist with the New York Times. 


This book is a dictionary of political communications and was published in 1968. What makes it fascinating is that it is now over 50 years old and some of the language and concepts in it seem effortlessly fresh. The dictionary makes it a timeless reference book that you can pick up and find new information for any speaking point you are preparing. It includes entries on everything from “Cufflinks Gang” to ‘the cult of personality’ and ‘stump’ to ‘Superpatriots.” It’s a must read for anybody curious about language, and how public people communicate. It is also very handy if you work in communications and help people with speaking points at public events. I’m still asked, quite regularly, to help people make an impact with their words at an event. If you are in the same position – you need this book. 


The book expertly identifies political language that was in common usage and explains its context and its back story. 


Here are some of my favourite entries:

Floo-Floo Bird

A bird that flies backward, more interested in where it has been than where it is going; liberal’s description of a conservative.



The impression of himself that a public figure attempts to convey; the merchandising of reputation. 



Sidestepping an issue, being mealy-mouthed, not treading where angels fear to tread. 

This was a sobriquet of W.E. “Pussy-foot” Johnson, an ardent advocate of prohibition, who was so named because of his stealthy, unrelenting, catlike approach to revenue-evaders in the Indian Territory. 


Strike a blow for freedom

A pleasant drink in a politicians office, accompanied by informal political discussion, a kind of legislative code phrase. 


Ugly Americans

American diplomats and businessmen abroad who undercut foreign policy with their pomposity, high living, and lack of communication with the great majority of natives. The phrase was taken from Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American, a group of related fictional stories about US businessmen and officials in Southeast Asia. 


War Clouds

Metaphor (approaching cliché) about an approaching storm. ‘A cloud hangs over your heads and ours.” Richard Henty Lee of the Continental Congress told the people of Great Britain in 1775. ‘Ere this reaches you, it may probably burst upon is… let us entreat Heaven to avert our ruin and the destruction that threatens our friends, brethren, and countrymen on the other side of the Atlantic.”

‘As the War clouds gather, far across the sea,’ are the opening words of the verse to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America.’ Dwight Eisenhower used it uncharacteristically in describing the arms race. “Under a cloud of war, it was humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” The metaphor could use a good rest. For too long, clouds of suspicion have led to storms of criticism, and war clouds to mushrooms clouds. 


The moral of the story – always pick money off the street.