Why is it, I wonder, that the Clinton-Starr-Lewinsky imbroglio has done so little to enrich the lexicon of American political controversy?
The Joseph McCarthy era left us with phrases like "Fifth Amendment Communist," "McCarthyism," and, finally, from lawyer Joseph Welch, "Have you, at long last, no shame, sir?"
Sometimes a controversy would bequeath us one word. The way the nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court was shot down, giving us the verb "to Bork" somebody.
Watergate was, of course, a treasure trove for language lovers. John Dean's "cancer on the presidency," Sen. Howard Baker's "what did the president know and when did he know it," spokesman Ron Ziegler's "third-rate burglary," John Ehrlichman's "modified, limited hang-out," and "twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."
Woodward-Bernstein saw "Deep Throat," recycling the title of a movie. The Saturday night massacre of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, the suffix "gate" that can make almost any word into scandal title. And a phrase with special meaning for me: "enemies list."
Iran-contra did not compare. It only gave us President Reagan's "mistakes were made," Oliver North's "a cake in a Bible for the Iranian mullahs," and lawyer Brendon Sullivan's "potted plant."
What has the current scandal given us beyond pallid phrases like "talking points," "sexual relationship," and "physical evidence," and of course "mea culpa," which is not exactly American language.
Even the climax to the whole affair, President Clinton's appearance on Monday before the grand jury and his subsequent television statement, gave us nothing more ringing than "not appropriate, in fact it was wrong."
What is the reason for this paucity of catchy lines? One reason, undoubtedly, is that we have not yet had televised hearings of the kind that gave Watergate its special cache. There is, I believe, another reason.
Watergate was about power and this is about sex, which does not lend itself to easy repetition to a mass audience. A whole collection of sex-scandal jokes and gag lines is circulating in the Washington underground, none of which I care to repeat here.
So, this scandal is discussed mainly in euphemism, leaving not much in memorable usage contributions.
Language-gate you might call it.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.