Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Vitiate' sparks political outcry, obscene query

By William Safire  /  NEW YORK , NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Democrats know what "vitiate" means.

"In this world, two people can be deeply in love and ... they should be permitted to be married," US Congressman Dennis Kucinich said in a debate for the presidential nomination early this year. "To say that you've got to go from state to state to achieve that right absolutely vitiates who we are as a nation."

A year ago, General Wesley Clark, soon to be a Democratic candidate, warned that if there were continued US casualties and demonstrations in Iraq, "it will vitiate the impact of the very successful military operations we just concluded there."

The year before that, according to Bob Woodward's revealing Plan of Attack, a meeting was held in the White House that included President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and legislative aide Nicholas Calio. The subject was the "homeland security" bill that Bush was pressing for; the sweeping proposal was meeting resistance from Democratic lawmakers. The word "security" had been substituted for "defense" at the request of the Defense Department.

"The Homeland Security bill was being blocked in the Senate by a filibuster," wrote Woodward. "Calio told the president that they were about to `vitiate' the filibuster." The author then quoted the president asking Calio the meaning of the word. "Cheney, too, wondered aloud what vitiate meant."

Apparently the aide did not have a definition on the tip of his tongue, but "The next day Calio brought in a two-page handout of definitions from the Webster's and American Heritage dictionaries describing that vitiate meant to void or render ineffective. Later the White House did exactly that, securing the 60 votes needed to end debate and passing the bill."

"Webster's" is a name used by many dictionaries, but the best seller is Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Diction-ary, the eleventh edition of which is a direct descendant of the work first published by Noah Webster in 1806. It notes the Latin root vitium means fault or vice, and defines it first as "to make faulty or defective" with a quotation from William Styron: "The comic impact is vitiated by obvious haste."

The Webster's New World College Dictionary leads its definition with "to make imperfect, faulty, or impure; spoil; corrupt." My unabridged and more expensive favorite dictionary, American Heritage, also consulted by Calio, agrees. It has a nice array of synonyms at corrupt, an entry I frequently consult when wearing my scandalmonger's cap ("debase, debauch, deprave, pervert, vitiate" -- so many stories to tell, so little space).

Woodward's account featured a problematic phrase: "They were about to `vitiate' the filibuster." I'm aware of many of the debaucheries and perversions prevalent in the nation's capital, and have even energized debase, but I never heard such depravity applied to a filibuster.

A call to Senate historian Richard A. Baker elicited this response: "I don't think that's common usage applied to a filibuster. I've heard `vitiate the order,' meaning `to set aside or strike out the order to do such-and-such,' as in `Mr. President, I move that we vitiate the order.' That's commonly heard on the floors of the House and Senate. And you can vitiate a cloture motion, which is designed to cut off a filibuster, rendering it moot. I'll fax one over."

Since Calio was the author's main source for this account (Bush urged his appointees to cooperate with Woodward), my researcher tracked him down at his new office, where he runs government relations for banking's giant Citigroup. How do you vitiate a filibuster?

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