I did a double take a few nights ago while watching one of the evening cable television news shows. One of the commentators referred to herself and her colleagues — in a self-kidding way — as “nattering nabobs.”
The alarm bells and warning lights went off in my brain — whoa! Haven’t heard that one in a long, long time.
I wondered if she knew the source, if she knew the context of that name. It wasn’t the full, complete phrase. She omitted the last two words, “... of negativism,” and the following sentence that put the icing on the cake.
She was a relatively young woman — nearly all the female commentators on TV these days seem to be young, and nearly all look like they’ve just graduated from careers as fashion models or stepped out of cosmetics commercials. Maybe she didn’t know or didn’t remember who first uttered those words.
It was, of course, one of Maryland’s own — Spiro T. Agnew — the Baltimore Republican politician who became the state’s governor and the nation’s vice president, and then resigned in 1973 in disgrace, in office, for taking bribes earlier in his career.
Agnew, who wasn’t particularly erudite, didn’t come up with the words himself. They were penned by GOP speechwriter William Safire for an address Agnew gave at the California Republican Convention in San Diego on Sept. 11, 1970.
Here’s the full quote:
“In the United States today, we have more than our own share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club — the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
I didn’t think much of Safire’s politics, but as a former member of the typewriter tapping trade myself, I’ve always appreciated his talent for alliteration. Safire later had a long and distinguished stint with The New York Times and continued to display his mastery of the English language. He died in 2009 at the age of 79.
But those words he wrote for Agnew four decades earlier were one of the first salvos Republican conservatives fired at what they called the liberal Eastern, establishment media. Clever as they were, they helped set in motion a tide that would cleave the country in two.
The right wing of what was once the Grand Old Party was on its way to inventing the “silent majority” and digging a deep moat down the middle of the political spectrum. Safire’s words identified a scapegoat to blame for the divide: the news business and its practitioners.
The media, as the messenger, more and more often became the target, not the miscreants who were creating the chasm in the first place.
Over the past 50 years, other forces, including the radical religious right, have joined the effort to erode the American sense of community and weaken the champions of the right to free speech. Politicians — chief among them President Donald Trump — have learned that preaching division is more lucrative than sermonizing about harmony. He followed more than one TV evangelist who perfected the art of speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Trump has gone so far as to call the media “the enemy of the people.” In the process, he gives aid and comfort to the real enemy: evil actors like Vladimir Putin who take advantage of America’s open microphone to broadcast thinly disguised messages of hate.
William Safire’s words are memorable but certainly not noble. They are words we need to remember for their historical significance, but not words to be remembered for their truth. They are words of artful propaganda. And propaganda is the last thing we need.