Tracking a Journalistic Cliché: "The Worst Attack on Our Democracy Since the Civil War"
In the first installment of "TK Mashup," a piece of a Joe Biden speech quickly becomes the ostensibly original thoughts of cable news anchors
On April 28th of this year, Joe Biden gave one of the first big speeches of his presidency, addressing a Joint Session of Congress. “I stand here tonight, just one day shy of the 100th day of my administration,” he said. “One hundred days since I took the oath of office, lifted my hand off our family Bible, and inherited a nation in crisis.”
He went on:
“The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
Presidential speeches are more like corporate productions than individual literary efforts. A key aide or team of aides may write the first draft — adviser Mike Donilon is said to have authored this one — and from there, other cooks in the kitchen fight over the ingredients.
One wants to remove a line, a second tries to add one, and a third will battle over run time or location. According to speechwriter David Frum, George Bush’s famed “Axis of Evil” line was also delivered to a Joint Session, because Karl Rove believed his boss was better before audiences than before “the silent eye of a television camera.”
No one has said where exactly the line “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War” came from. None other than Thomas Friedman in the fall of 2020 wrote a pre-election column saying America was in “more danger than it has been since the Civil War,” and it’s possible a political aide spotted the line and liked it. Certainly, however, it didn’t become journalistic cliché until Biden’s April 28th speech.
News directors and editors once needed stiff nudges to repeat a president’s words verbatim, not just because it’s embarrassing to take dictation from a politician, but because it was bad business to do it for free. If politicians wanted you to buy the “Axis of Evil” or “the end of welfare as we know it,” that’s what paid political advertising was for. In the Trump years, however, it’s become almost a daily practice for commentators to fob off White House-crafted political messaging as their own thoughts.
I feel bad picking on old friend Chris Hayes, among other things because he did come up with his own, more generalized “since the Civil War” analogy before Biden’s speech. Still, watch in the clip above how he pauses and adds an “arguably, probably” in the middle of a now-almost-verbatim recitation of Biden’s line — “the worst attack on American Democracy, arguably, probably, since the Civil War” — as if he’s coming up with the phrase in the moment, and not repeating exact presidential language from six months before.
This disease has spread rapidly in the last year or so, when phrases like “transformative president” and “pandemic of the unvaccinated” have begun traveling from White House transcripts to teleprompters facing anchors on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox with humorous alacrity. In fact, “the worst… since the Civil War” was such a success in flowing from Biden’s head to the lips of people like Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo that, as noted in Matt Orfalea’s terrific compilation above, it’s been deployed for rare double-duty as a political cliché. It’s currently in circulation describing both the January 6th riots and the efforts by Republican state officials to change voting rights laws, and has even become a bit of a crossover hit.
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