Taking 2016 ‘literally,’ but not all ‘seriously’


By Clarence Page



Our long wait is over. The time has come to honor the most quotable quotes, in my opinion, from a bizarre political year that many of us wish we could forget.

I call my award, which includes no prize other than a firm handshake, “the Earl.” That’s my salute to the late Earl Bush, long-time press secretary to the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley or, in the memories of many Chicagoans, Richard the First.

Bush is famously remembered for telling reporters: “Don’t print what (the mayor) said. Print what he meant.”

Indeed, one of the nation’s most powerful politicians sometimes seemed to speak English as though it were his second language.

Even reading from a prepared text did not save him on one occasion from misreading “plateaus” to declare, “We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement.”

In that spirit, my hands-down winner of this year’s Earl award goes to journalist Salena Zito. While covering Donald Trump’s campaign for The Atlantic in September, she wrote what I believe is the most pithy, profound and re-quoted explanation of the many that have tried to explain the new president-elect’s surprising success:

“The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally,” she wrote.

Or as Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, told journalists in December: “This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it.”

That sounded at first like spin-doctor hubris to my journalism-school-trained ears. But then I thought back to other pols I have known and covered. Regardless of political party, some master the knack of connecting too well with their audiences for anything as inconsequential as facts, logic or proper syntax to get in their way.

Even Trump’s new friendly-enemy President Barack Obama obviously stretched the truth when he repeatedly promised that under his Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.” Adding a proper qualifier — such as “if you meet the law’s criteria” — would have been more accurate but less exciting. Zito might say, Obama’s supporters took him seriously, if not quite literally.

Considering the many candidates that Trump offered in an endless stream, it is not surprising that one topped this year’s top-10 list of notable quotables compiled by Fred Shapiro, the associate director for collections at Yale Law School’s library.

The winner: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” said Trump at a campaign rally in Iowa, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

That jaw-dropper edged out first lady Michelle Obama’s memorable line to the Democratic National Convention, “When they go low, we go high.” And Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost the presidency anyway.

But she did place third place for saying at a September fundraiser in New York, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”

By the time she later retracted her use of “half” as offensively hyperbolic, gleeful Trump supporters already were putting on “I’m deplorable” T-shirts.

Shapiro makes good lists, but his top 10 missed my favorites in the following categories that I just made up:

So That Was The Problem?

“Let’s be honest. For a while there, we forgot the ‘not’ in ‘Try Not to Suck.’ “

— Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, summing up the team’s 108 years without a World Series championship — until 2016.

You First, Mr. President-Elect

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division. (We) have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.”

— Donald J. Trump, of all people, in his election night victory speech.

Bittersweet

“Do you know how thoroughly distrusted you are, mainstream media? Well, he is now… We the People’s nominee. So, suck it up, cupcake!”

— Sarah Palin, at a Trump rally in San Diego, to the “sheep in the media.”

At least, she called us cupcakes — sweet.

Oh, well. Happy New Year — and you can quote me!

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By Clarence Page

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@tribune.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@tribune.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.