Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Orators make snatching defeat from victory sound appealing

Politicans have long pushed word usage to the 'water's edge' and then down the 'slippery slope' and beyond in vying for a postscript in the annals of history

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"What a colossal mistake it would be," said Connecticut's senior senator, Joe Lieberman, "for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of coming victory."

That Scoop Jacksonian utterance from a leading Democrat about our Iraq campaign got some pacifists in his party up in arms, but it also rang an alarm bell among those of us in the phraseology dodge. By his acknowledgment of "the famous phrase," Lieberman averted a charge of cliche usage but raised the question: Whose famous phrase? And what was snatched -- defeat from the jaws of victory, or vice versa?

A New York Times reporter wrote in 1891 that the Republican-dominated 51st Congress "will be likely to be known as one in which the leaders of a great and powerful party plucked defeat from the jaws of victory."

But hold on -- here comes Fred Shapiro, editor of the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations, with an even earlier citation. A newspaper entitled The National Era quoted a speech made on Feb. 21, 1850, by Illinois representative William Bissell, who chided another congressman, James Seddon of Virginia, for saying that a Mississippi regiment at the 1847 battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War had "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat." Bissell disputed this claim, attributing the snatching (not plucking) of victory (not defeat) to Northern regiments.

Does this mean that we have at long last found the source of a vivid metaphor that has eluded military historians and passionate phrasedicks for a century and a half? And have we finally solved the mystery of which came first, the plucked victory or the snatched defeat? Of course not. As search machines proliferate, earlier usages may well be found, and quotation archeologists will most likely display them in future compendia of famous sayings. But at least we have dug our way down to the entrance of the tomb.

WATER'S EDGE

Not content with his allusion to rhetorical jawboning, Lieberman went on to say that in matters of war, "Politics should stop at the water's edge." I had what I thought was the source of that metaphor of nonpartisanship in my political dictionary: Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, said in 1950, "To me [bipartisan foreign policy] means a mutual effort under our indispensable two-party system to unite our official voice at the water's edge."

The historian Richard Neustadt wrote a few years later that former president Harry Truman played chief of foreign policy "like a career official anxious to obey his own injunction that [politics stops at the water's edge]."

Vandenberg, who courageously went up against his party's isolationists, has been getting credit for that felicitous phrase for years. Sorry, Arthur, it wasn't your coinage, and leafing through musty books and records is no longer the way for etymologists to go. The Little Search Engine That Could huffs and puffs through mountains of data to reveal that on Jan. 17, 1907, the Washington Post reported that at a banquet in Washington honoring secretary of state Elihu Root, president Theodore Roosevelt said that once in office, a public official -- whatever party he belonged to -- "must feel that he is the servant of the people. This is true of all public officials, but perhaps it is in a special sense true of the secretary of state, for our party lines stop at the water's edge."

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