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Dishing Dirt On Gossip

The movement began underground, with ads in the subway. It found adherents in Hollywood and piqued the interest of President Bush.

The goal: Stop gossip.

The campaign got rolling in early September, with ads in subway stations and on taxis and bus kiosks, urging people to pledge not to use hurtful words.

Days later came Sept. 11. The "Words Can Heal" campaign could not heal anything that day. It was set aside, as were immediate plans for Mr. Bush to endorse it.

Now it's back. With all the good manners Americans have been showing in the aftermath of the attacks, and all the introspection, organizers thought the time was ripe to encourage people to speak better about each other.

"We want to return, not to normal, but to a better normal," said actress Goldie Hawn, stepping out as a spokeswoman for the effort.

In an interview, she said gossip is not only destructive, but dreary.

"I have sat around dinner tables of others where they have done nothing but talk about people the whole dinner," she said, all business in a black suit.

"I didn't want to be there," she said. "I was bored."

Gossipers, she said, are like "a gerbil running in a cage with that little roundy roundy toy and going nowhere."

Reining in the ritual of snide asides is a daunting task.

"It's part of human nature," says conflict-resolution specialist Jack Levin, who wrote "Gossip: The Inside Scoop." "Unlike the apes, we don't groom each other physically. We do it verbally."

The campaign was inspired by the Jewish prohibition against speaking idly about others. Gossip-bitten Tom Cruise is another supporter, as are a variety of politicians from the left and right.

Rabbi Irwin Katsof, executive director of, said he has continued to be in touch with supportive White House aides, apparently with the expectation that Bush will lend a hand when he's not so busy.

Before Sept. 11, the president had planned to endorse the program as part of a broader package of low-cost proposals aimed at strengthening communities. He'd begun referring to a values agenda in his speeches.

Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, who recalls gossip being the salvation of tedious childhood summers, found it odd at the time that a president would take an interest in the private talk of strangers.

"A world without gossip would be a very sad place," he said. "For him to actually try to intervene in everyday conversation is really giving me the creeps."

Mr. Bush, ducking prickly personal questions in his election campaign, said Americans "don't like the politics of gossip and innuendo, and neither do I."

His attention is diverted now, but the debate goes on without him and has for centuries.

"Gossip is mischievous, light and easy to raise, but grievous to bear and hard to get rid of," the Greek poet Hesiod said about 700 B.C. "No gossip ever dies away entirely, if many people voice it: it too is a kind of divinity."

The American poet Phylls McGinley begged to differ in 1957: "Gossip isn't scandal and it's not merely malicious. It's chatter about the human race by lovers of the same."

The effort to discourage gossip and verbal bullying is aimed especially at children. Sociologists have noted that school shootings and other violent youth acts have often involved people who felt like outcasts.

Hawn made her name as the giggling dancer with the psychedelic body paint on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in the late 1960s and went on to a career as a comedy film star.

She's not been a huge target for gossip columnists in recent years, although some people have clucked because she and actor Kurt Russell decided years ago to raise a family without being wed.

No one is looking to legislate gossip away, she said. People will have to draw their own lines.

"It's time to declare a gossip-free zone," she said, "in our schools and in our lives."

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