Two phrases popped out of the second presidential debate as verbal keepers, and both were from by Mitt Romney: his proud recollection of using “binders full of women” when looking for cabinet members as Massachusetts governor, and his denunciation of President Obama for supposedly failing to say the words “act of terror” to describe what happened to our consulate in Benghazi.
The first sounds like just another instance of Mittspeak, one of his weird word salads (“The trees are the right height,” athletes engage in “sport,” his wife flies on an “aircraft”). It is the lingual oddness of a man used to prevarication (as Ari Melber points out about the “binder” meme, Romney “signed an executive order banning equal opportunity programs for women in 2003”), for whom language is more a form of selling than telling.
But the “act of terror” line was something else altogether.
Romney’s invocation of “act of terror” was the “gotcha” moment that turned into a “got me,” because Candy Crowley confirmed that, despite Romney’s insistence to the contrary, the president had indeed used those words the day after the attack. Awkward! Being called out as flat wrong seemed to both astound and infuriate Romney, as the now-famous still shot of his expression shows (and as you can see in motion here, from The Daily Show starting around 2:43):
The moment was so awkward, in fact, that the right has been busily trying to wipe it away ever since, by asserting that Crowley has taken it back (she hasn’t), or that Crowley was “biased,” or that Obama wasn’t talking about Benghazi (as Colbert asked: “How do we know he’s talking about Benghazi in that Benghazi speech the day after the Benghazi attacks?”), or by insisting that Obama’s words “act of terror” didn’t really count because he didn’t invoke the truer word, “terrorism.” “Declaring something an act of terror does not necessarily mean you are declaring it a terror attack,” declared Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. (There are other variations on this last cavil, which FAIR cooly rips to pieces.)
To the liberal mind, GOP spinners look desperate and petty when they bore down like this. But what we libs don’t understand is that Mitt Romney was at that moment citing a kind of scripture.
Words like "act of terror" are recited as a litany by the itinerant preachers of the right (known to the rest of us as “political consultants”) to drive their ideas into mainstream discourse. They are taught like new hymns and secured in the mind by rhythm and repetition. That’s why wingers so often display a punctiliousness about words—the right words, they know, can keep reality at bay, especially when chanted by a group.
The Republicans have been promoting new liturgy and reviving old standbys throughout this campaign, with varying degrees of success: “apologizes for America,” “I’m not a bump in the road,” “Simpson Bowles,” even 2008’s “drill, baby, drill.” Some words, like “Bush,” have been banned, while some formerly verboten coinages, like “Romneycare,” have received special dispensation to be used in limited circumstances, like when reinventing yourself as a moderate. It’s semi-OK now, but when Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul simply mentioned the Massachusetts health care system back in August, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter demanded an excommunication. Coulter:
if Andrea Saul isn’t fired and off the campaign tomorrow, [big donors] are not giving another dime. Because it is not worth fighting for this man if this is the kind of spokesman he has to respond to this by citing health care in Massachusetts.
Once these phrases become part of the canon, any variation can become the mark of an apostate. Think of how a magic spell in Harry Potter must be spoken precisely to work, or how, in ancient Rome, the pontifex maximus couldn't flub a word in his public prayer without having to start the whole elaborate ceremony all over again. When Crowley said Obama had indeed uttered what Holy Writ had been declaring for two weeks that he had never said, she was not only humiliating Mitt, she was speaking sacrilege. Romney was shocked as well as angered. There just aren't words odd enough to express how it made him feel.