Saturday, April 12, 2008
Dick Cavett: Memo to Petraeus and Crocker
April 11, 2008, 6:20 pm NY Times
Memo to Petraeus & Crocker: More Laughs, Please
Once again it is time to bid aloha to that sober team of mirthless entertainers, Petraeus & Crocker.
It’s hard to imagine where you could find another pair of such sleep-inducing performers.
I can’t look at Petraeus — his uniform ornamented like a Christmas tree with honors, medals and ribbons — without thinking of the great Mort Sahl at the peak of his brilliance. He talked about meeting General Westmoreland in the Vietnam days. Mort, in a virtuoso display of his uncanny detailed knowledge — and memory — of such things, recited the lengthy list (”Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre with Chevron, Bronze Star, Pacific Campaign” and on and on), naming each of the half-acre of decorations, medals, ornaments, campaign ribbons and other fripperies festooning the general’s sternum in gaudy display. Finishing the detailed list, Mort observed, “Very impressive!” Adding, “If you’re twelve.”
(As speakers, both Petraeus and Crocker are guilty of unbearable sesquipedalianism, a word wickedly inflicted on me by my English-teaching mother. It’s one of those words that is what it says. From the Latin, literally “using foot-and-a-half-long words.” We all learned the word for words that sound like what they say — like “click” or “pop” or “boom” or “hiss” — but I’m sure the mercifully defunct Famous Writers School surely forbade using the “sesqui” word and “onomatopeia” in the same paragraph. (You can have fun with both of them at your next cocktail party.)
But back to our story. Never in this breathing world have I seen a person clog up and erode his speaking — as distinct from his reading — with more “uhs,” “ers” and “ums” than poor Crocker. Surely he has never seen himself talking: “Uh, that is uh, a, uh, matter that we, er, um, uh are carefully, uh, considering.” (Not a parody, an actual Crocker sentence. And not even the worst.)
These harsh-on-the-ear insertions, delivered in his less than melodious, hoarse-sounding tenor, are maddening. And their effect is to say that the speaker is painfully unsure of what he wants, er, um, to say.
If Crocker’s collection of these broken shards of verbal crockery were eliminated from his testimony, everyone there would get home at least an hour earlier.
Petraeus commits a different assault on the listener. And on the language. In addition to his own pedantic delivery, there is his turgid vocabulary. It reminds you of Copspeak, a language spoken nowhere on earth except by cops and firemen when talking to “Eyewitness News.” Its rule: never use a short word where a longer one will do. It must be meant to convey some misguided sense of “learnedness” and “scholasticism” — possibly even that dread thing, “intellectualism” — to their talk. Sorry, I mean their “articulation.”
No crook ever gets out of the car. A “perpetrator exits the vehicle.” (Does any cop say to his wife at dinner, “Honey, I stubbed my toe today as I exited our vehicle”?) No “man” or “woman” is present in Copspeak. They are replaced by that five-syllable, leaden ingot, the “individual.” The other day, there issued from a fire chief’s mouth, “It contributed to the obfuscation of what eventually eventuated.” This from a guy who looked like he talked, in real life, like Rocky Balboa. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Who imposes this phony, academic-sounding verbal junk on brave and hard-working men and women who don’t need the added burden of trying to talk like effete characters from Victorian novels?
And, General, there is no excuse anywhere on earth for a stillborn monster like “ethnosectarian conflict,” as Jon Stewart so hilariously pointed out.
What would the general be forced to say if it weren’t for the icky, precious-sounding “challenge” that he leans so heavily on? That politically correct term, which was created so that folks who are legally blind, deaf, clumsy, crippled, impotent, tremor-ridden, stupid, addicted or villainously ugly are really none of those unhappy things at all. They are merely challenged. (Are these euphemisms supposed to make them feel better?) And no one need be unlucky enough to be dead or hideously wounded anymore. Those unfortunates are merely “casualties” — a sort of restful-sounding word.
(I have a friend who would like the opportunity to say to our distinguished warrior, “General Petraeus, my son was killed in one of your challenges.”)
Petraeus uses “challenge” for a rich variety of things. It covers ominous developments, threats, defeats on the battlefield and unfound solutions to ghastly happenings. And of course there’s that biggest of challenges, that slapstick band of silent-movie comics called, flatteringly, the Iraqi “fighting forces.” (A perilous one letter away from “fighting farces.”) The ones who are supposed to allow us to bring troops home but never do.
Petraeus’s verbal road is full of all kinds of bumps and lurches and awkward oddities. How about “ongoing processes of substantial increases in personnel”?
Try talking English, General. You mean more soldiers.
It’s like listening to someone speaking a language you only partly know. And who’s being paid by the syllable. You miss a lot. I guess a guy bearing up under such a chestload of hardware — and pretty ribbons in a variety of decorator colors — can’t be expected to speak like ordinary mortals, for example you and me. He should try once saying — instead of “ongoing process of high level engagements” — maybe something in colloquial English? Like: “fights” or “meetings” (or whatever the hell it’s supposed to mean).
I find it painful to watch this team of two straight men, straining on the potty of language. Only to deliver such . . . what? Such knobbed and lumpy artifacts of superfluous verbiage? (Sorry, now I’m doing it…)
But I must hand it to his generalship. He did say something quite clearly and admirably and I am grateful for his frankness. He told us that our gains are largely imaginary: that our alleged “progress” is “fragile and reversible.” (Quite an accomplishment in our sixth year of war.) This provides, of course, a bit of pre-emptive covering of the general’s hindquarters next time that, true to Murphy’s Law, things turn sour again.
Back to poor Crocker. His brows are knitted. And he has a perpetually alarmed expression, as if, perhaps, he feels something crawling up his leg.
Could it be he is being overtaken by the thought that an honorable career has been besmirched by his obediently doing the dirty work of the tinpot Genghis Khan of Crawford, Texas? The one whose foolish military misadventure seems to increasingly resemble that of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn?
Not an apt comparison, I admit.
Custer only sent 258 soldiers to their deaths.
About Dick Cavett
The host of “The Dick Cavett Show” — which aired on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on public television from 1977 to 1982 — Dick Cavett is also the coauthor of two books, “Cavett” (1974) and “Eye on Cavett” (1983). He has appeared on Broadway in “Otherwise Engaged” “Into the Woods” and as narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show,” and has made guest appearances in movies and on TV shows including “Forrest Gump” and “The Simpsons.” Mr. Cavett lives in New York City and Montauk, N.Y.