The Language of Politics

March 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the things that attracted or, to be more honest, addicted me to politics when I was twenty-one years old was the colorful, pungent language that seemed to pour effortlessly from the mouths of grass-roots level political operators.

I once overheard Ralph Yarborough and his good friend, Creekmore Fath laughing and joking about Lyndon Johnson, calling him a “bank walker”.   I had no idea what they found so funny about that, or what the phrase meant.

I later learned that at various times in the then recent past, young men in East Texas sometimes repaired to a river to swim in the nude, lie around on  grassy banks under shady trees and  exchange jokes and gossip.   On those occasions crude ridicule was aimed at any of their number who walked back and forth on the river bank, showing off the appearance and size of his genitalia.   Such men were called “bank walkers” and the phrase came to describe a particular kind of crude male show-off.  As I came to know more about Lyndon Johnson, the phrase was a perfect two-word description of him.

I heard people referred to as “crazy as a peach orchard boar”.   It was explained to me that East Texas peach orchards were sometimes abandoned or not carefully tended.  As a result, the peaches would become over-ripe and fall to the ground.  In some places, hogs were either released to forage in some fenced-in space or escaped from their pens to range freely.   These were not the javelinas of  South Texas.  They were ordinary hogs.

The over-ripe peaches would be eaten by the hogs and, because of their fermentation, would cause the hogs to become intoxicated.  Hence, “crazy as a peach orchard boar”.   I have always suspected this was a better story than the chemistry would support.  Still, whether or not true, the phrase became part of my vocabulary as a result of exposure to East Texas pols.

I now know that these phrases have been incorporated into general parlance by the internet, YouTube, the “Urban Dictionary” and other vehicles.  When I first heard them, they were part of my education.  I feel mildly irritated to discover that they have become familiar to people outside Texas and away from politics.  It feels like something small and personal has been appropriated.  I well know that this reaction is irrational and somewhat pathetic.  But,  as a matter of candor, I confess to it.

I recalled these experiences recently while watching one of the endless television analyses, by a panel of  “experts”, about why Willard Romney is so generally disliked by many republicans and why, regardless, he seems to be their choice to become President.   James Carville,  a Louisiana political operative who talks and acts and thinks exactly like the East Texas politicians whom I knew in the 50’s and 60’s [except that none of them would have given Mary Matalin a second look], offered this analysis of Romney’s  problem:  “It’s like giving a dog a pill.  He keeps spitting it out and spitting it out.  Finally, he swallows it, but he doesn’t like it.”

That’s the kind  of language that hooked me.

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