Words once said take on life of their own

There are moments in history where you can pretty much pinpoint when a leader lost his momentum.  When Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake”, she may not have put the final nail in the coffin of the French monarchy, but she gave that nail its final hit.

More recently, there is that famous moment when Walter Cronkite came back from Vietnam and announced on the evening news that it was not a winnable war. President Lyndon Johnson, on hearing that report, is said to have remarked, “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost the nation”. And it turned out to be so.

Sometimes words can do more damage than anyone imagines.  I would expect that’s how the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword” started. And now that phrase includes words on TV and radio as well as in print. 

President George H. W. Bush stated clearly, “No new taxes” and then instituted new taxes.  These words were repeated in just about every story written during that campaign and became a sore point with an electorate that felt betrayed. Ultimately, they helped to defeat his re-election.

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Greg Renkes may or may not have done much more than exercise extremely poor judgment in his handling of the whole Kfx affair, but what really did him in was the Bundy report.  In that report, Bundy states that Renkes broke no ethics law because his $126,000 investment was “insignificant” and therefore did not rise to the level of a transgression.

The state of Alaska’s ethics law is, in fact, big enough to drive through with ten times that amount of money onboard. But that was not the problem.  The problem was his choice of words.

After Bundy’s report was released, what I heard repeated again and again from people for whom $126,000 is more than they expect to have put away over a lifetime of saving for their old age was, “$126,000 seems awfully significant to me”.  Or, “If he finds $126,000 so insignificant, he should send it to me. It will be very significant to me”,

Trying to explain to people that the report did not say that Renkes found the amount insignificant but that, in fact, Bundy was referring to it as insignificant against the total worth of Kfx was pretty much a useless exercise.  People could not shake their perception of that phrase’s meaning.

I have a friend whose daughter was selected for a summer job with a company that did tangential business with a state office for which she worked.  The company was two levels down and about three levels sideways from anything that could be considered her oversight.  But before her daughter could take that job without risk to her mother’s job, her mom had to clear it through about four levels of supervisors.  Her daughter’s minimal wage summer job was considered that significant.

So one can only imagine how people would view an attorney general who is cleared by a report announcing that $126,000 is insignificant even if they misunderstand how that phrase is being used.

I guess the moral to this story is that the pen continues to be much mightier than the sword.  A certain phrase, some words strung together in the middle of a huge report that catches the public’s eye, a sound bite that is repeated ad nauseam in a campaign – these are the things that can bring down the mighty in a democracy. This is why we don’t need to be in the streets with guns and bullets. Our newspapers, magazines, radio and TV are there with ammunition that is mightier. This is also why you will never find a free press anywhere but in a democracy.

The powerful in this nation can protect themselves against many things but words seep under the most sealed of doors.  Ask Bill Clinton if he would take back the words, “That depends on what your definition of �is’ is”. 

And now Greg Renkes has discovered how powerful a simple phrase can be. 

In the real world, $126,000 is not insignificant.  Once those words were written in that report, no matter what the original intent, his days as Attorney General were numbered.