Somewhere back in ancient history — so ancient I was still a teenager — a great American statesman in the tradition of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the renowned Roman orator and scourge of every high school Latin student, muttered this memorable comment: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism.”
As I fondly recall those words of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, serving dutifully under President Richard M. Nixon, I have to wonder: “What the heck was he talking about?”
I was never sure what a “nabob” was, although it sounded like something edible that you could cook on a George Foreman grill. However, that phrase entered popular culture and stuck like Gorilla Glue for the past 50 years. I confess that I love to “natter” although I wouldn’t describe myself as a nabob, as much as a nitwit or narcissist.
It’s widely thought that Agnew was attacking the media. CNN, you see, actually means Cable Nattering Nabobs and NPR stands for Nabobs Public Radio. Others claim Agnew was chiding politicians critical of the Nixon Administration, when he delivered his speech at the California Republican state convention in 1970.
The words were written by speechwriter William Safire, who for many years had a highly regarded column about words and nabobs in The New York Times.
Safire was addicted to alliteration just as some of us are addicted to processed sugar and credit cards. He wrote, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’” He was probably inspired by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who once wrote, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…”
I never understood what a nattering nabob of negativism was, so I turned to the dictionary to decipher that confounding usage. To “natter” means to gossip, talk or chatter. A “nabob” is variously defined as “a Muslim official, a governor under the Mogul empire or a person of conspicuous wealth or high status.” And “negativism” is a state of mind common to Americans of both political parties.
Was Agnew suggesting that rich Muslim officials who liked to complain were causing problems for Nixon? Or that Americans who sit around gossiping at country clubs should shut up and stop criticizing the president and eat their cucumber sandwiches?
Maybe he should have said something like the “clattering crackpots of crapola” or “devious dunces of deceit” or “malevolent minions of mistrust” or “putrid purveyors of poppycock.” Or better yet, “purveyors of putrid poppycock.”
Safire and his mouthpiece Agnew were prophetic. Today, America is suffering from a contagion of negativism that began even before Donald Trump was invented of discovered or created. Whichever it was.
My intention isn’t to ignite even more political hysteria. I was forced to listen to enough of it over the holiday. I’m non-partisan. Over the years, I’ve voted for candidates of peculiar third parties, who I later discovered were alien life forms; however, I don’t identify myself as a Republican, Democrat or Martian.
I believe in the promise of democracy, although I’m more philosophically aligned with Henry David Thoreau, who famously nattered, “That government is best which governs least.” Perhaps he should have used alliteration to make his point and said, “That government is greatest that goes for gridlock.” Or “Gridlock will make America GRRREAT again.” (Out of desperation, I’ve secretly joined the ranks of nattering nincompoops.)
Politics is like a contagious rash that afflicts even the most honorable people and makes them pursue questionable goals. Once they get elected, they forget how to compromise, and they succumb to pressure from party leaders and groups like Greenpeace, the NRA and the National Pot Growers Association.
Lately, more and more families and friends are fighting about politics. Republicans say we have to make America great again. Democrats say America was never great. So let’s call a temporary moratorium to the political arguments and only discuss serious topics like religion, sex and Kim Kardashian.
As Spiro Agnew once said, “O tempora! O mores!” Or maybe that was Cicero.
Joe Pisani can be reached at [email protected]