Watergate Talk: “At this point in time”
A treasure house of prose from the hearing’s phrasemasters
By Helen Dudar
The alert Watergate TV addict should have spotted it by now. A catchy word here, a switchable phrase there, a clutch of supple synonyms.
When the Ervin committee opened its hearings a few weeks ago, all one hoped for was full disclosure of the scandal. Could any of us have imagined it would also yield such riches of language — a treasure house of prose useful for writing confidential memos, evading the detection of criminal conspiracies and, who knows, maybe even composing job applications?
Although it seems a little early to express gratitude, it is certainly time for a preliminary look at the linguistic splendors of Watergate.
ATPIT: The acronym for “At That Point In Time” and its usual companion, “At This Point In Time.” perhaps the most frequently repeated expression of the sessions. At first hearings, the phrases may grate. Why not plain old “at that time,” “then” or “at this time” and “now?”
But if you think about it, the line has a nice beat. Set it to a peppy tune and you’ll find yourself singing it.
It is authentic Nixonian Whitehouse Speak. Hardly a witness has forgotten it and some of the senators like it, too. The champion ATPITER so far is John W. Dean III, the former White House counsel. who has been clocked at five ATPITS an hour, and in one moment of triumph was heard to use it three times in 45 seconds. Moreover, he is a master of variations of the form, finding occasion to place events at one point in time, at some point in time, at a given point in time and at a particular point in time.
A memory lapse once left him hazy about what point in time. It didn’t seem possible to ring another change on the line until Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., asked him, at which point in time.
TIME FRAME: The newest, hottest, oddest clot of jargon to come out of the hearings. Probably unfamiliar to anyone who has not enjoyed the benefits of a college major in business administration, it appears to have been borrowed from the folks down at the computer centers. It could permanently replace time span and period of time.
TIC: Acronym for terminate, indicate and commence again. I terminated the conversation after indicating to him that I would commence work. Hugh Sloan Jr., treasurer of the Finance Committee to Re-Elect the President, was big on terminating. Everybody at the hearings indicates rather than says because that legal nicety allows them quoting directly. Dean is forever commencing. We hate to keep mentioning Dean, but while we’re at it, he never leaves any place either, but always departs. If you’re making notes, it would also do well to remember that events transpire and occur more often than they happen.
In general, it’s hard to disapprove of this concerted effort to substitute multisyllabic Latinate words for short common Anglo-Saxon ones. Providing extra work for typists is one way of keeping unemployment down.
DEEP SIX: As in John Ehrlichman telling John Dean to shred the documents and deep-six the briefcase taken from the safe of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. An old Navy term meaning, cast into the sea.
TELEPHONICALLY: Maybe you call people on the telephone. John Dean deals with them telephonically. And why not?
STROKE: Odd that a regime as stridently asexual as the Nixon administration should favor such a sweetly sensual term for making people feel nice. At the White House, a soothing holiday call from Mr. Nixon, Dean reports, was called “a stroking session.” An official who leaks a story in order to see his name in print is engaged in ego-stroke.
SPECIFICITY: When Dean remembers, he remembers in detail. When he doesn’t know, he can’t tell us “with any degree of specificity.” A brilliant example of the marriage of bureaucratese, whose habits tend to linguistic murk, and legalese which leans on formalized phraseology for security.
SURREPTITIOUS ENTRY: The manner in which the White House considered violating the Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure in an effort to do something about some of those unpleasant people who were making the President’s life miserable. Very important to the serious student of Realbureaucratese (as opposed to a Shambureaucratese), which we will get to in just a moment.) It is quite a while before you realize that what was being proposed was burglary, which is a crime.
Another example may be found in John Dean’s account of the White House discussions of ways to head off further Watergate inquiries. One suggestion was that John Mitchell “should be brought forward,” a dainty way of saying that Mitchell should take all the blame and all the punishment.
CHANNEL OF REPORTING: Dean’s substitute for “I took my orders from H. R. Haldeman,” and a perfect illustration of Shambureaucratese which is less concerned with obfuscation than with dressing up a fact or treating it with elaborate courtesy or divesting it of embarrassment.
You may recall that Hugh Sloan Jr. paid “increments . . . in the form of currency” to G. Gordon Liddy, the architect of the Watergate bugging plan; this is more comfortable than saying you gave cash to a man who turned out to be a crook.
Politeness probably was the mark of Watergate conspirator James Mccord’s testimony that John Caulfield told him “he was carrying the message of executive clemency to me from the very highest levels of the White House.” In this mode, nobody mentions the President’s name.
PRE-SITUATION and its companion, post-situation: Dean’s shorthand labels for the time before the Watergate burglary and the period following it. Uncertain of its origin or application. Needs more study.
SIGN-OFF: Rare, interesting expression for people searching for another way to say they’ve okayed a project. Used by Jeb Stuart Magruder, deputy director of CRP, in recounting how Mitchell, then CRP head, approved a detail. He signed off on it.
THE GAME: The playing fields of America as a metaphor for government and the political process. See Caulfield telling Mccord he was “fouling up the game plan.” See also Herbert Porter, a CRP functionary, testifying that he kept quiet about the odd doings at campaign headquarters out of a compulsion to remain a “team player.” Be warned the metaphor is likely to be out of fashion for a while.
RESERVATION, neither rare nor new, but another I interesting way of viewing government as the special preserve of the people running it at a given point in time. See Dean’s testimony that, having told Haldeman he was taking history to the feds, he recognized he was now “off the reservation.”
VENTILATE: A favorite legalism of Sen Howard Baker, R-Tenn., vice chairman of the Senate select committee. “Can you tell me, Mr. Porter, how we might ventilate the structure of campaigning?”