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Friday, 6 February 2009

Oval Office slang

It was Thursday Feb 5th. I couldn’t avoid locking my eyes on to the plasma screen in the transit lounge of Singapore airport, whilst waiting around for the flight connection to Sydney, en route from London. The already familiar picture overhead was Barack Obama, with his Cabinet nominee Tom Daschle at his shoulder. The text headline provided for the viewer quoted Obama as saying, “I’ve screwed up.” That sounds pretty lurid, I thought, after so short a time in office. What’s behind it?

Barack Obama vowed to usher in a new era of politics in Washington free of scandal and patronage. But, he then tried to confirm a Cabinet colleague, Tom Daschle, to become a member of his Cabinet, even though Daschle had admitted to evading $140,000 in taxes. The ensuing outrage from political opponents forced Obama to try to match rhetoric with reality by admitting failure. He said, “It was a mistake, which I intend to fix . . . to make sure we’re not screwing up again.”

Whilst Obama worthily admitted making a mistake of judgement, the slang “screwed up” is interesting. There’s a double f* analogy, which relates to freedom and fornication - the gaoler and the gender. The prison warder of old times punished an inmate by turning the screw in a box with a handle, which the prisoner had to revolve 10,000 times in a working day – the tighter the screw, the more difficult the turn. The warder is also called “the screw” because he holds the key (French: ecrouer) to the cell, and can turn it whichever way. Obama presumably referred, then, to a potential for self-punishment whilst executing the Presidential office. A little early for that, don’t you think? Or, was the use of “screw up” a sexual reference, celebrating those foolhardy relationships which end in calamity for either or both? Again, an inappropriate analogy, when remembering Obama’s beautiful wife, Michelle, and his loving daughters.

Well, anyway, what’s a rhetorician to do, when besieged on all sides with impossible problems to fix? Where will he find some help in grasping the appropriate phrase in the heat of the moment? Obama himself witnessed to the answer, when taking the oath of office on the Holy Bible. That set me thinking - is there a biblical phrase which would have said it better? Yes, there is! King Saul (in 1 Samuel 26:21) realises he’s been unreasonable in pursuing his rival David, and admits to him, “I have played the fool; I have erred exceedingly.”

So, let’s rewind the tape, and say it better: “It was a mistake, which I intend to fix . . . to make sure we’re not playing the fool again.” Thank you, Mr President – now I understand what I hope you meant! And you have used the Holy Bible to help restore the dignity of the Oval office.