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The Evolving Jargon of "Clintonization"

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
September 4, 2001
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Politics is, in part, a rhetorical battle that extends to the meaning of words themselves. That's why it's important that Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes" and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh independently used the term "Clintonization" in the last two weeks. First appropriated by conservatives during Clinton's second term, the word is now being turned into increasingly vague jargon designed to trigger negative perceptions of Clinton.

The origins of "Clintonization"

The term Clintonization was first used by syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg in a July 31, 1992 column discussing the rise of Hillary and Bill Clinton as "cultural icons" who, Greenberg predicted, would give rise to a "clintonized" culture blending "careerism" and "sentimentality", and valuing "instrumentalism".

The term came into occasional use from there under its default meaning of having been influenced by Clinton. Most frequently, it was used in two specific ways:

Negative association (and disassociation) with other politicians

  • In 1994, attacks associating Oklahoma Senate candidate David McCurdy with the then-unpopular Clinton were referred to as "Clintonization" (CNN Inside Politics, 10/31/94).
  • "[The choice of Senator Joe] Lieberman [as his running mate]... has enabled Gore to de-Clintonize his candidacy" (Reason, 11/00).

Tactical influence on American and British politics

  • "[T]he Labor Party ... is undergoing a rift over how far it should proceed with what is called 'Clintonization'" (New York Times, 1/23/93).
  • "When I talk about the 'Clintonization' of Republicans I am referring to the copying his tactics" (Robert Novak, Hotline interview, 3/27/00).

Taking it pejorative

During Clinton's second term, Clintonization began to be used as a rhetorical device against the President. Its use reflected the attacks on Clinton during impeachment, and the increasing perception - especially among conservatives - that he was dishonest and did not reflect mainstream American values. While Clinton's presidency no doubt had a major impact on the country, especially his political triumph in the impeachment process, these critics often fail to make a rational case that this effect was negative. More frequently, they simply define Clintonization as a series of perceived negative social/moral trends, creating associations without actually making a logical argument that Clinton caused or strengthened the trends.

In 1996, Paul Greenberg, who first invented the term, was quoted as bemoaning the "'Clintonization' of the culture" in which people live for the moment, rather than a greater goal (USA Today, 6/24/96). By 1998, conservative commentator William Bennett criticized "the Clintonization of the culture", which he believed represented a decline in morality (Christian Science Monitor, 3/25/98). As these usages spread, they triggered letters to the editor using Clintonization along similar lines - examples came in papers including The Pantagraph in Bloomington, IL (9/19/97), Sacramento Bee (11/24/98), Lancaster, PA Intelligencer Journal (3/22/99), Augusta (GA) Chronicle (6/8/99) and the Los Angeles Times (8/28/00).

But the full power of Clintonization didn't start to emerge until recently, as the term was used in increasingly vague and negative terms. Late last year, a letter writer to the Las Vegas Review-Journal argued that Vice President Gore's legal pursuit of recounts in Florida "truly attests to his Clintonization", which the writer later defines as "relentless pursuit of victory - no matter the cost to individuals or the country" (11/21/00). The Joplin Globe in Missouri editorialized that "[t]he mess in Florida, we feel, is an early symptom of the Clintonization of politics, which is really just a further encroachment of an entire 'me, myself and I' philosophy that has crept into many areas of American life" (12/10/00).

Hannity and Limbaugh

Aggressive pundits are often key to the development of new political jargon, so Hannity and Limbaugh's redefinition of Clintonization late last month bears close scrutiny. Consider first Hannity, a sophisticated jargon-slinger who offered the most perverse and vague definition yet when discussing Rep. Gary Condit:

Sex with an intern, politician in a position of power, lying, lying repeatedly, parsing words, and -- and even going as far as suggesting people are liars when they tell the truth. You know what? I see Bill Clinton II. This is the Clintonization, if you will, of America, and the natural ... fallout (8/24/01).

Hannity has set up a straw man construction in which all lying and extramarital affairs from here forward are attributable to Clinton's presidency. He pounded it further last Friday, extending the Clintonization trope into a full-blown causal argument. According to Hannity, the failure to remove President Clinton from office is the reason Condit has behaved as he has:

Look -- you know, Bob, look -- Congressman Barr, I was making the case last night this -- this is a natural consequence for having not thrown Bill Clinton out of office. We're getting the same thing -- sex with an intern, suborning -- charges of subornation of perjury and obstruction, parsing of words.
Now we don't -- not only do we not know what "is" means, "alone" means, now we don't know what "relationship" means. If you have sex with a woman for 10 months, that's not a relationship, by the way. This is a consequence of Clinton, isn't it, Congressman Barr? (8/28/01)

Co-host Alan Colmes made the obvious point in response that there is no evidence Condit would have behaved differently if Clinton had been removed from office.

Then take Limbaugh, who apparently hopes his propaganda mechanically associating Clinton with negative stories will further mar the ex-president's reputation. On his show Friday, the host said the fact that Danny Almonte, the Little League World Series pitching phenom from the Bronx, lied about his age was indicative of "[t]he era of Clinton ... illustrating itself in fine form" (8/31/01). No further specifics were offered about how Almonte relates to Clinton, although Limbaugh railed briefly at a straw man that he constructed to represent defenders of Almonte. The RushLimbaugh.com website then billed a summary of the segment as "the Clintonization of America" without any further specifics (even including a picture of Clinton throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game). During the radio segment, Limbaugh did not mention Clinton again until he closed with a cheap shot suggesting that Clinton was connected with Almonte's cheating: "The Bronx is not far from Chappaqua. Is there a link? You be the judge."

Of course, Almonte and his father reportedly only arrived in this country from the Dominican Republic in June 2000. Apparently, Limbaugh finds it self-evident that Clinton caused cheating by a 14-year-old boy, his father, who has been in the United States only for the last six to seven months of Clinton's presidency, and a coach who was reportedly caught using overage players on a Dominican team in 1988. Note in particular how "Clintonization" is vague enough to connect Clinton with the controversy without making any specific claim about how he is related. In fact, Limbaugh uses the term as an argument in and of itself, which takes the jargon one step beyond Hannity (who defines it and puts it in some kind of context, illogical as it may be).

Linguistic political battles

What's important here is not that some of Clinton's critics are criticizing him more strongly, but that they are doing so by trying to embed more and more meaning into his name. Once that meaning has been established, the term can then be used in place of rational argument as a sort of a primal shorthand for triggering everything Clinton's opponents loathe about him. If that happens, we will be hearing about Clintonization a lot more in the future.

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Related links:
-Coulter just won't give up on Clinton-Condit association (Bryan Keefer, 8/30)
-Pruden is at it again (Brendan Nyhan, 8/24)
-Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (Brendan Nyhan, 8/15)
-Continuing the Condit spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/31)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)


CBS News reports that "clintonize" and its variants, including Clintonization, were added to the Oxford English Dictionary last year. Here is the definition:

Clintonize, v.
U.S. Pol. colloq.
trans. (and intr. for refl.) To modify in accordance with or as a result of the policies of President Clinton. So Clintonization n.; Clintonized ppl. a.

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