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What's the Deal?

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, June 1, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt had his Square Deal, Franklin Roosevelt had his New Deal, LBJ had his Great Society… and now Barack Obama is aiming to create a “new foundation.” The president introduced the phrase in passing in his inaugural address, and lately he’s been working it into just about every speech to link his programs for energy, education, health care, and financial reform.

I can see why the speechwriters would have liked the phrase, with its suggestion of sound investment, not to mention the allusion to the parable from the Sermon on the Mount about building your house on rock rather than sand.

Of course, some people had their quibbles: “New foundation” has too many syllables. Its meaning isn’t obvious. It’s the same slogan Jimmy Carter briefly floated in 1979. It makes you think of a girdle.

That might all be relevant if “new foundation" were being offered as a slogan, like "change we can believe in.” The word slogan comes from the Gaelic for "battle cry," if you'll cast your mind back, and slogans still live and die by language. They work for as long as they’re vivid and fresh; and as soon as they get stale they have to be replaced. Goodbye “Things go better with Coke,” hello “It’s the real thing.”

But phrases like the New Deal and the Great Society aren't slogans. They're more akin to brand names like Kellogg's’ or Sam's Choice, which gather a bunch of different items into a single product line. The actual phrases aren’t that important. Even when a brand name starts out with an independent meaning, it only becomes successful when its original meaning is eclipsed by the aura of the thing it’s attached to. People don’t buy a Maidenform so that they can achieve the form of a maiden or shop at Safeway because it’s safe. And if you’re torn between buying a Cougar and a Jaguar, it’s not because you can’t decide which cat you like best.

In politics, though, slogans can occasionally turn into brand names as their original meanings fade. Take the New Deal, which only accidentally became a slogan in the first place. After the Democrats chose FDR as their nominee at their convention in Chicago in 1932, he decided at the last minute to break with tradition and accept the nomination in person. When he arrived after a nine-hour charter flight from Albany, his speechwriter Sam Rosenman handed him a speech that contained the ringing line "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." It wasn't intended as a campaign slogan, but the next day a cartoonist depicted a poor farmer looking up at an airplane labeled "New Deal," and the phrase caught on.

Afterward, a lot of people tried to take credit for the phrase; Roosevelt's brain truster Raymond Moley said he had proposed it in an earlier memo, and others pointed to a recent article with that title in the New Republic or said it was an attempt to blend Teddy's Square Deal with Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. But it scarcely matters -- it was a familiar old phrase for a fresh start, originally derived from poker.

At the time, the poker metaphor was still very vivid. FDR’s opponent Herbert Hoover ridiculed the New deal as no more than a "new shuffle," and just after the election, a columnist wrote, "We not only got a new deal and a new dealer but a new deck of cards." An editorial cartoon entitled "Hope" showed FDR about to deal a deck of cards; another, more foreboding, showed him with a deck topped by a bearded, bomb-holding joker labeled “socialist experiments.” A cartoon from the African American Chicago Defender was headed "Waiting for the New Deal": it showed Roosevelt holding cards that said "Equal Justice" and "Anti-Lynch Laws" as he sat across the table across from a black man.

To a desperate country, the slogan “a new deal” promised dramatic changes, even if FDR’s actual campaign platform was vague and not especially radical. It was only after the new administration enacted a torrent of legislation during its first 100 days that the phrase grew capital letters and was transformed from a slogan to a proper name for FDR’s programs and later for the whole era. From then on, its original meaning began to fade. In modern times, almost nobody associates the deal of the New Deal with cards -- most people assume it refers to an agreement or compact with the American people.

That transition from campaign slogan to proper name has never fully repeated itself. After Kennedy’s election, his “New Frontier” slogan became a label for his administration’s youthful style, celebrated in songs and fashion spreads, but by the time his legislative proposals were brought to fruition, they were wearing the brand of Johnson's Great Society. Since then, presidents have had very little luck at branding their agendas. Neither Nixon nor Reagan got anywhere with the New Federalism. Clinton's New Covenant was blown out in the early innings by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, which fared a bit better. And George W. Bush’s Ownership Society went down with his proposals to privatize Social Security -- though you could argue that Bush's real marketing triumph was in bundling an assortment of far-flung military operations and domestic security programs under the brand name "war on terror.”

It's clear that history’s judgment on these things doesn't depend on what they’re called. If we still remember the Great Society, it certainly isn't because of its name, which sounded terribly inflated when it was first proclaimed. It’s because like the New Deal, it encompassed a sweeping legislative program that transformed American life. We'd remember it just as well if it had been called the Sensational Nation or a Better Deal, which was the name that Johnson tried out first. And the fate of Obama's "New Foundation" will ultimately depend on politics, not syllables or semantics -- in fact we’ll know for sure it’s a success when people can’t remember why it was called that anymore. Obama was right when he said in the campaign that words matter. But names matter a little less.

Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.