‘Alternative facts’ is now the operative way to widen one’s credibility gap
January 24, 2017 12:00 AM
Kellyanne Conway may forever be remembered as the person who coined the term "alternative facts."
By Rich Jaroslovsky
First came “the credibility gap.” Then, “inoperative.” Now, less than a week into the Trump administration, we have a new euphemism for government officials telling falsehoods: “alternative facts.”
The instantly deathless phrase was uttered over the weekend by President Donald Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, as she attempted to justify administration assertions about the size of the crowds attending Mr. Trump’s inauguration in the face of photographic evidence to the contrary.
“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” Ms. Conway explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” to which host Chuck Todd, to his credit, immediately observed: “Alternative facts aren't facts, they are falsehoods.” Ms. Conway used the phrase again a few moments later, perhaps cementing its place in the Hall of Fame of Government Doublespeak.
The history of euphemisms for official lying is a long one; what’s unusual about this one is it happened so fast.
Fifty-plus years ago, “credibility gap” took a while to seep into the public consciousness. It referred to the widening chasm between the Lyndon Johnson administration’s upbeat assessments about the progress of the Vietnam War and the increasingly downbeat reports emanating from journalists actually on the ground in Southeast Asia.
No one is quite sure who coined the phrase, but Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, is often given credit for popularizing it in the mid-’60s, and it was firmly ensconced by the time Johnson left office in early 1969.
A closer parallel to Ms. Conway’s performance came from Ron Ziegler, press secretary to Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon. On April 17, 1973, after a year of furious White House denials of complicity in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, Mr. Nixon announced “major new developments” in the case and confirmed the possible involvement of members of his administration. (His two top White House aides resigned later that month.)
Following the president’s stunning appearance, after which he took no questions, Mr. Ziegler confronted an incredulous White House press corps. What about all those previous denials? reporters demanded.
Mr. Ziegler referred several times to the latest comments as being the “operative” ones. Well then, asked The New York Times’ R.W. Apple, did that make the others “inoperative?” Mr. Ziegler finally took the bait. “This is the operative statement,” he responded, referring to Mr. Nixon’s announcement. “The others are inoperative.”
Over time, observed the political lexicographer and New York Times columnist William Safire, “inoperative” came to mean “a correction without an apology, leaving the corrector in a deep hole.” New York magazine defined it somewhat more succinctly as “a lie that no longer works.”
In contrast to Mr. Ziegler’s unfortunate coinage, which was uttered under duress, Ms. Conway’s richly Orwellian “alternative facts” was an unforced error. Though it may take a long time for her to acknowledge it, the speed with which the hashtag #alternativefacts spread through social media — a phenomenon unknown in the days of Johnson and Nixon — suggests it may have sticking power.
Oh, and by the way: I bear a striking resemblance to George Clooney. #alternativefacts.
Rich Jaroslovsky, a former White House correspondent, is a political editor and columnist.
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