Jeb Bush and the rise of 'terrible, horrible, no good, very bad' politics

In an era of insta-political analysis – much of it damage assessment – the 'terrible, horrible, no good, very bad' phrase from a famous children's book has become a gem.

Jim Young/Reuters
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seen here after the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines Saturday, was the latest politician to be deemed to have a 'terrible, horrible, no good, very bad' week.

“Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad.” A string of adjectives, derived from the title of Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book, that pundits have adopted as the ideal way to pronounce something – usually, a politician’s missteps – as unrelentingly awful.

Political journalism loves to draw from popular culture, especially in a Twitter-centric age in which it’s become essential to render definitive, swift and catchy pronouncements. Ms. Viorst’s 1972 book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” in which the title character endures a series of humiliations from discovering chewing gum in his hair to being served lima beans for dinner, accomplishes all of this in an easy way.

The latest development setting the meme in motion is Jeb Bush’s recent clumsy efforts to address whether he would have followed in his brother’s footsteps in deciding whether to invade Iraq. Yahoo News, The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian all were in agreement that Bush’s repeated attempts to address the question amounted to a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week” for the ex-Florida governor.

But Mr. Bush is merely the latest in the GOP field to get pinned with the label. The left-leaning website Talking Points Memo gave his fellow Republican rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the appellation in February for opposing funding for the Homeland Security Department and for rejecting Loretta Lynch’s nomination for attorney general. That same month, The Daily Beast brought it out for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after he declined to answer whether he believed President Obama is a Christian.

Others who have been given the T/H/NG/VB treatment include Mr. Obama, for a series of troubles in 2013 involving the Internal Revenue Service as well as other controversies, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, for an assortment of perceived missteps over the years ranging from the Democrats’ thrashing in last year’s midterm elections to her 2010 comments on health care. It also can be applied to ideas, such as conservative reaction to one of the president’s education tax proposals.

In fact, Viorst’s book itself has proven so irresistible that it has spawned some political parodies. BuzzFeed’s Krystie Lee Yandoli wrote one last year about Vice President Joe Biden: “I went to sleep after having a case of ice-cold colas and now my breath smells like soda and when I got out of bed this morning, I had a massive sugar hangover and by mistake I dropped my favorite red tie in the toilet after I used it and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Meanwhile, the whimsical website McSweeney’s issued another in the voice of an imaginary tea party Republican. “In traffic I wanted to drive in the carpool lane,” the aggrieved author wrote. “Rideshares got to drive in the carpool lane. Electric buses and hybrid cars too. But the nanny state wouldn’t let me drive in the carpool lane. I said it was unconstitutional. I said it was socialism. I said if I don’t get to drive in the carpool lane I’m going to use my Second Amendment rights. No one even listened.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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