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.

(26) comments


Sounds like more of the same old Democrat Propaganda Machine- -Orange Man Bad--Hype that permeates the mass media and it's sycophants in the citizenry of this Country. Same Old Song And Dance by the party of Division. It never ends unless they win. Then the whole world can rejoice in perfect harmony. What a bunch of malarkey. We can "only reelect Trump". This guy knows what he's talking about. You should listen to him. MAGA 2020! and beyond![beam]


It's not propaganda in saying that Agent Orange is bad...it's a FACT. The guy is utterly one of the biggest nitwits of the last generation of nitwits of his age group. Add his faithful followers as the same sort.


The RRR(RadicalRightRepublicans) love to push, ad nauseum, how the Democrats/Liberals are moving “Far Left”, following AOC and Bernie and Elizabeth, which is being demonstrated not to be true. But the Republicans/Conservatives have been moving farther and farther “Right” for 50 years, as Mr. Elliot so clearly presented to us today. That move to the “Right” accelerated in 1994 when Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House and introduced the “Contract ON America” and 25 years later became the RRR(RadicalRightRepublicans) introduced by DJ Trump. The Republicans have moved so far “RIGHT” they have abandoned the Constitution and the Rule of Law and our Republic Democracy.


phydoh, your comment, in my opinion, is a classic example of projection from a member of the LLL (Liberal Looney Left). Get a new game plan. It's getting old.


A great column at the right time Mr. Elliott. We need to repeat your observations every few weeks to keep these past 4 1/2 years in perspective. This too, will pass. This Crisis may serve to wake us up and pull us back together.

Obadiah Plainsmen

if "propaganda is the last thing we need" I suggest you stop writing your column. Anyway it was a nice attempt to spin the negativity in this country on Evangelicals. And we now have another meaning for RRR ( RadicalReligious Right). Keep up affixing labels on people.


Radical religious right <> evangelical. Or do you think it is?

Obadiah Plainsmen

No I don't, Evangelicals are the "silent majority" as Elliot refers to. In the next paragraph he calls the "silent majority" "the miscreants who were creating the chasm in the first place". Next paragraph Elliot combines the "silent majority" with other forces and RRR "for 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".

Elliot has the talent of a vindictive prejudice mind. A very nice propaganda piece written to continue the divisiveness in this Country. An article like this more part of the problem more than a solution.


I don’t understand how this supports your claim that the columnist was trying to pin negativity on evangelicals.


Fantastic article, Mr. Elliott. Always enjoy your column but this one ramped up remote regions of my brain, now numb from negatism from those nattering nabobs of Safire's legacy, including Trump and writers of some of the comments you've received.


Hard to talk about the history of political divisiveness in this country without mentioning Rush Limbaugh, the father of post-Fairness Doctrine divisive talk shows. Ironic that he has lung cancer.


It would be very dangerous if he were to get COVID-19.



I could never listen to Rush Limbaugh. Still cannot. I can not listen to Rachel Maddow or similar ones; either. Extremist. But it is unimaginable that I could ever hope she has lung cancer or is deserving of lung cancer. Those are feelings fostered by hate. Hate is a destructive force. Personally and socially.

It is far too easy to get angry these days. I am guilty.. But when we cannot let go of the anger, think clearer, and fall back on the tenets of our beliefs it can become becomes hate. Nothing good ever comes from hate.


Who wishes anyone to get lung cancer or Coronavirus jsk??? OP implied the same thing. Could you point to the comment here that made you say. I think that all America just wishes for the TRUTH.


I get no joy out of Rush's illness and never suggested that I did.


Your jump to thinking any of the above commenters "hoped" that Rush or anyone else would get lung cancer is a sign of a seriously flawed mind.


Vonnegut also had his fictional science fiction writer, "Kilgore Trout" write that the purpose of life is

"To be

the eyes

and ears

and conscience

of the Creator of the Universe..."


Three - [thumbup][thumbup]


Thanks Gary. I like to think that is a big reason for why we contribute to this forum.


My Lord, someone has an inflated opinion of their own importance!


Mr. Elliot

I used to read your column regularly. I looked forward to the Monday paper. But times change. I can't remember you being political but then again I was more aligned with the left then. And that was just a few years ago.

But things do change. The divisiveness in this country did not start with Donald Trump. It cane from the left. Radical groups and radical social policies attacking everything. And the press was complicit feeding the voracious appetite of the youth and their 24/7 electronic appendages. Spiro was prescient. The modern press and the high percentage of the propaganda brain soaked youth have truly become the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

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Comment deleted.

In other words, "My Tribe is better than yours, join my tribe so we aren't divided." No thanks, I don't like your tribe and I don't like the R tribe either. Become a reasonable human being instead of a tribal loyalist and then we can deal.

Comment deleted.

Better yet fool, take your own advice.

Comment deleted.

If that's the way you want it thumper. Works for me. Stay in your own world. I'll stay in mine. But don't you dare cross over and try to influence others with your Anti-American rhetoric. Sound good Bud?


"They are words of artful propaganda. And propaganda is the last thing we need." This on a Day of National Prayer is what we are meant to agree with or be inspired to by the writer. Not words that embolden our soul or validate our holistic intelligence. Instead we get propaganda Amreican style. A passive aggressive blend telling the reader/s - what we need and who is to blame for not realising an illusive uptopian Candyland. So - the writer Kurt Vonnegut is atttributed to these words of wisdom that clarify the state of now - here: 'Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.'

Flannery O'Connor tells us: 'The truth does not change according to your ability to stomach it.' It is Dorothy Day who best says of our human condundrum: 'I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.' Today - what we appear to need are less and less are functionairies and their pundits pretending to be healers by telling us what we "need" - while blaming someone or something else for the absence of a world we have long been told can exist. The truth can hurt - as much as it can heal. As Day encourages: "Don't worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth." Regardless of what the world may or may not be - your light is required always. As is liberty.

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