Sun, Jul 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

What do you call it when politicians give patriotic stemwinders?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The phrase "Fourth of July oratory" has long been used to deride robust expressions of patriotism on Independence Day. "Has the oratory that is peculiar to the Fourth of July," asked senator Stanley Matthews on the floor of the Senate in 1879, "come to be ... a scorn and a reproach? Is it enough to smother opposition and put down argument to say that that is merely the sentimentality of a Fourth of July oratory?"

Four years later, James Russell Lowell, a poet who served as ambassador to the Court of St. James', told an Independence Day audience, "Now the Fourth of July has several times been alluded to, and I believe it is generally thought on that anniversary the spirit of a certain bird known to heraldic ornithologists -- and I believe to them alone -- as the spread eagle, enters into every American's breast, and compels him, whether he will or no, to pour forth a flood of national self-laudation." (He added that it took place only one day a year.)

Mark Twain was one of those who spoofed the Fourth, especially its commercialization by fireworks manufacturers. The master of the tall tale told an Independence Day audience that one of his uncles out West "opened his mouth to hurrah, and a rocket went down his throat ... blew up and scattered him all over the 45 states, and -- really, now, this is true -- I know about it myself -- 24 hours after that it was raining buttons, recognizable as his, on the Atlantic Seaboard."

Tall-tale telling is an old American art form, but elitist nose-wrinkling by those too easily discomfited by displays of love of country can trigger a go-too-far. When the orator Rufus Choate derided "the glittering and sounding generalities of natural right" that made up the Declaration of Independence, Ralph Waldo Emerson made Choate's phrase pithier and then demolished it: "`Glittering generalities!' They are blazing ubiquities." (A ubiquity has the capacity of being present everywhere all the time. It's a great word, but not as familiar as "omnipresent"; I wouldn't use it in a Fourth of July speech.)

Some controversialists worry about recusal: When should judges recuse themselves from deciding cases, based on a conflict of interest or desire to avoid criticism, and when do they have an obligation to sit in judgment, as they are trained and paid to do?

In the quiet haven of grammatical, etymological and semantic scholarship that is this space, I worry about whether the verb recuse is still transitive -- that is, if it transmits an action from subject to object and requires that object to achieve its meaning. For example, accuse is transitive; I [subject] accuse [transitive verb] you [object]. But if you just say "I accuse," the sentence just hangs there, looking forlornly for an object to receive the action; you can't get away with that unless you're Emile Zola charging ubiquitously. You can, however, say, "I accuse myself" -- turning the action inward and using a selfish reflexive pronoun as the object.

So when a judge uses the transitive verb `recuse,' shouldn't he (or she, as the case may be, and nobody says "as the case may be" anymore) use a reflexive pronoun as the object? Shouldn't it be "I recuse myself" or "She recused herself?"

That's not what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in an explanation of why he decided not to disqualify himself in some case about sitting ducks. He wrote instead, "I do not think it would be proper for me to recuse." No object. As the learned counsel say: Hunh?

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