Beltway: Land of unfortunate euphemisms

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(CBS News) When I left town two weeks ago, people were saying Barack Obama had ruined his chance for reelection because he had been talking about the economy and opined, "The private sector is fine," which of course it wasn't.

By Friday when I got back to town, that had all been washed away by the hubbub over Mitt Romney declaring the mandate in the health care law was a "tax" - which his staff had previously, and vociferously, said was "not a tax."

The first thing I thought of was Bill Clinton's tortured explanation during the Lewinsky scandal, when he said it all depended "on the meaning of what 'is' is," and I thought about how politicians in a tight spot are always in search of a good euphemism.

When inflation was skyrocketing in the '70s, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed a Cornell economist named Alfred Kahn to be his inflation czar. Kahn immediately warned of the possibility of a "serious depression."

When the White House threw a tizzy about the use of the word "depression," Kahn said, "OK, I'll just call it a banana."

That threw the banana growers into a tizzy, so - and I'm not making this up - Kahn switched to calling the downturn a kumquat!

Other than avoiding fruits as euphemisms, I doubt there's much the president or Romney can learn from this, but Kahn did write a memo to his staff that might be helpful to all politicians:

"Try to write in a straightforward prose-way, as if you were communicating with real people."

Now, that might just work in a campaign!

  • Bob Schieffer On Twitter»

    Bob Schieffer is CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and anchor of Face the Nation.

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