Slogans We’ll Remember

Jan R. Van Meter

Addenda to Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History

The book, ends with Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987 for no other reason than it had to end at some point. However, slogans and catchphrases as an integral part of American life did not cease then—or now. But what will survive 30 or 50 years from now, much less nearly three centuries as have John Winthrop’s words: “We shall be as a city upon a hill.”?

Predicting the survival of anything, much less anything as normally ephemeral as a slogan or a catchphrase is as chancy as predicting the survival of a clothing style or a film. The Godfather endures; Easy Rider is now both embarrassing and forgotten. Blue jeans seem eternal; the mini-skirt comes and goes, and the Nehru jacket and the leisure suit don’t bear thinking about any more than Jerry Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now (WIN).”

What seems to matter are any of a number of qualities: The importance of the moment recalled by the phrase; the use of mnemonic devices like meter, rhyme (why else does Tippecanoe survive?) and repetition; the importance of the encapsulated cultural value, and the phrase’s adaptability to other uses and times. Here are a few that might make it in 2050.

Read My Lips; No New Taxes (1988)

George Herbert Walker Bush needed to prove he was tough, tough enough to win the presidential election against the Democrat Michael Dukakis, tough enough to continue the legacy of the outgoing president Ronald Reagan, tough enough to erase his lingering reputation as an effete aristocrat and long-time government insider.

The Bush campaign staff wanted to demonstrate his toughness, his devotion to the Reagan ideals, and his strong conservative convictions. And so, in his acceptance speech to the GOP Convention, Bush stared directly into the lens of the television cameras and grimly said:

My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I’ll say no. and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, “Read my lips: no new taxes.

Bush was elected, but less than two years later, with the federal deficit reaching record levels, Bush was forced to raise some taxes as well as cut spending. He was never forgiven by his own party’s conservatives or by the media. Though Bush’s approval ratings with the public improved following the first Gulf War, his slogan became a byword for political untrustworthiness.

You’ve Got Mail (1989)

Personal computers for office and home, though common in most businesses by the end of the 1970s, did not see any serious sales until the 1980s. They began to take off then, but became a cultural phenomenon in the ’90s with the advent of email late in the decade, since email was a cheap and rapid form of communication for business and, most important, for teenagers.

In 1989, when AOL was about to introduce its content service, including email, with a massive and relentless marketing drive, the CEO wanted a voice for the product to make it unique. An employee suggested the company try her husband, an experienced broadcaster. It did, and Elwood “El” Edwards’s “You’ve Got Mail” became ubiquitous. At the time, just 22.8 percent of households in the U.S. had a computer—but AOL became the market leader in a highly popular and highly visible product.

Today, more than 75 percent of all households have a computer, and AOL has long lost its dominant position, falling far behind the leaders. El’s voice and words, though, live on—at least for now.

It’s the Economy, Stupid (1992)

In the latter part of the twentieh century, presidents have tended to prefer foreign affairs to domestic ones. The approval ratings after the start of major diplomatic or military ventures rise dramatically and the president only has to deal with foreign leaders and villains rather than pesky congressmen.

The problem with the preference, though, is that it ignores the fact that voters have most often voted with their wallets and pocketbooks.

President George H.W. Bush began his reelection campaign in 1993 with a victory in the first Iraq War and an approval rating of nearly 80%. But he had broken his promise not to raise taxes—permanently alienating the fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party—and failed to appreciate the effect of a recession on both the middle and working classes, both developments dropping his approval well below 50%. Even worse, he faced opponents with far more charisma than he: the Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and a wealthy and popular third party candidate, Ross Perot.

Clinton’s chief campaign strategist James Carville had a strong candidate in Clinton, but also one who was difficult to control in the heat of a campaign. He posted a sign in campaign headquarters with three commandments, one of which was “The economy, stupid.”

The race was tight, made that way by the pull of Perot among voters unhappy with both candidates and both parties. Clinton and the Democrats hammered on the economic issues and Carville’s slogan became public as “It’s the economy, stupid,” and Clinton won with 43% of the popular vote. Since then, the slogan has been altered to fit any situation the speaker wants to make significant—a sure way for a slogan to survive though risking death through triteness. The insult seems to go unnoticed.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (1993)

There have been gays in the military for as long as there have been armies and navies—and gays, for that matter. Winston Churchill famously raged at a group of British admirals, “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”

In the United States, pressure for civil rights for gays and lesbians had been building since the 1970s, but the resistance in the military remained unmoved on the grounds of morale, unit discipline, and security. This belief persisted despite at least two internal studies that concluded otherwise.

As one of his many campaign promises in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton vowed to end the ban on gays in the military by executive order, just as President Truman had ended racial segregation in the military. Predictably, there was a storm of protest from the public, from embattled or hostile congressmen, and from the military. Clinton’s promise threatened to derail his political agenda and the avowed executive order turned into a compromise. Gays could serve in the armed forces as long as they did not engage in sexual activities or announce their sexual orientation. The military, in turn, would not actively seek out and dismiss gays in their ranks.

The new policy quickly became known as, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” And so the policy remains despite ever-increasing public acceptance of gays and lesbians. But myths die hard. The slogan will last as long as the policy—though, since it has never been successfully used in another context—probably no longer.

Mission Accomplished (2003)

If ever a slogan came to embody the concept of irony, the sign behind President George W. Bush aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 did it. After some 40 days, the Iraq war—or at least the combat part of it—was over, or, as the sign read, “Mission Accomplished.

The ironies were many:

  • The President who had spent his years during the Vietnam War in the reserves had never seen combat, though he arrived in a flight suit as if he had flown there himself.
  • The carrier was named for one of the least hubristic president in history.
  • Whatever the mission was that brought about the invasion shifted as the prior mission failed, and kept shifting.
  • Vastly more casualties—civilian and military—occurred after the end of official combat than during.

This slogan has survived as a warning to anyone who boasts and thereby tempts fate. It is, then, one example of negative catchphrases like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman,” that have characterized the darker side of American history.

Yes We Can (2008)

It is odd that Barack Obama has been attacked for the quality of his oratory, since he has single-handedly evoked and revived one of the oldest traditions of American politics. With echoes of Patrick Henry, William Jennings Bryan, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama’s ability to electrify a crowd with the power of his speeches with positive emotion is rare in modern times. Speeches have, once again, become national events.

It was Obama’s speech in a defeat that first used the refrain “Yes We Can” that best demonstrates his abilities. Given to his supporters on the night of January 8, 2008, after he was narrowly defeated by Senator Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the speech emphasized his momentum as a candidate. With its rhythms and repetitions most often heard in Black churches and its subliminal allusion to the children’s story of The Little Engine that Could, the power of this oldest of American art forms can best be experienced as you listen to the speech or read it aloud yourself. The phrase is used again and again in his peroration as he builds to this conclusion:

And so tomorrow, as we take the campaign South and West; as we learn that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas; that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes. We. Can.

Jan R. Van Meter
Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History
©2008, 344 pages
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 9780226849683

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.

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