Media Catch-Phrases That Recall Pictures of the Past

HIS pallid face is round; he needs a shave. In a bored, nasal voice, he intones, ``Mr. Chairman, I have a list!'' The speaker is Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, and I can hear him to this day. I remember coming home from school and finding my mother in front of the TV, transfixed by the Army-McCarthy hearings. At dinner, as my parents discussed the proceedings, I heard fear in their voices. Now, all I have to do is hear a phrase from that time and it recalls the deep impression the hearings made.

The Army-McCarthy hearings are one of those historic events that have a distinct vocabulary. That vocabulary evokes not only distinct images but an entire era. Among its most vivid phrases are communist-front organization, communist dupe, security risk, subversive, and junior senator from Wisconsin.

In those days, if you wished to appear above suspicion, you cheerfully signed a loyalty oath; if you had something in your past to hide, you resorted to pleading the Fifth. Never before, and not since, have these words and phrases stirred so much anxiety.

Recently I heard a snatch of song lyric that took me back to that time with a shudder: ``Are you now or have you ever been?'' That phrase formed part of the McCarthy era's refrain. Witnesses were asked, ``Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?''

Another historic event fills my mind whenever I hear the words schoolbook depository. I know perfectly well that a schoolbook depository is for storing textbooks. But to me, it will always be a place where an assassin waited to murder President Kennedy.

The phrases that bring back Nov. 22, 1963, recall the day I grew up. That was the end of innocence for many of us. Some of the words I associate with that day are Warren Commission, lone assassin, single-bullet theory, conspiracy theory, and funeral cortege. Regardless of who the president happens to be, when I hear the phrase presidential motorcade, my mind leaps back to that day. And there is only one city that I can ever associate with a grassy knoll.

Still another historic event with its own vocabulary is summed up in the single vivid word Watergate. Like my mother before me, I was a hearings fan; I watched the Senate investigate all the president's men as avidly as she had watched the Army-McCarthy hearings.

I was not frightened by Watergate as I had been by those earlier hearings. I found it exhilarating. An energy seemed to be driving events toward an ineluctable destiny. That destiny - the revelation of the truth - led to a cleansing.

The vocabulary of Watergate includes euphemisms for sleaze and succinct little dramas - executive privilege, dirty tricks, White House plumbers, and Saturday night massacre. If you had incriminating documents, you made sure to deep six them in the Potomac. If you had a source whose name you dared not mention, you code-named him Deep Throat.

Thanks to John Dean, our conversation was replete with: at this point in time, parameters, and scenarios. John Mitchell reminded us that, ``When the going gets tough, the tough get going.'' But for me, the most potent phrase of the time, the one most revelatory of the corruption Watergate symbolizes, was the phrase 18-minute gap. Like the Army-McCarthy era, the Watergate hearings had a refrain. I can still recall feeling a sense of pride - not untinged with malice - whenever Sen. Sam Ervin or Sen. Howard Baker asked, ``What did the president know and when did he know it?''

The Army-McCarthy hearings, John F. Kennedy's assassination, and Watergate are not remote events existing in history books, yellowed headlines, and some anchorman's voice. These are historical events that have touched me, and so the words associated with them remind me.

Other events have touched me in an important way - the civil rights movement, the feminist struggle, the computer revolution, the Vietnam war. And as I try to think of the vocabulary I associate with each of them, I confess, I am surprised.

I did not expect to come back to events through language. In an age when one picture is worth a thousand megabytes and words are inflated beyond the price of beachfront property, it is remarkable to find bits of language that can still summon up powerful images and ideas, remind me of the lessons that events have to teach, and connect me emotionally as well as intellectually to history.

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