Digging for facts on dog-whistle politics

dog whistleA few weeks ago, I stumbled across this post at Taegan Goddard's Political Wire that cited a CNN interview in which President Bush said that history would judge the Iraq war as "just a comma." He subsequently repeated the statement elsewhere and the good folks at Political Wire suggested that it was code meant for the religious right:

While it seems an odd thing to say, a Political Wire reader suggests it's designed to speak to the religious right while not unnecessarily alarming others. In other words, it's a classic example of "dog whistle politics" used to energize his base.

The Christian proverb Bush was evidently referring to is "Never put a period where God has put a comma." In essence, trust in God to make a bad situation better.

Puzzled by these comments, I put out a feeler and Doug informed me that the only reference he had seen to this "Christian proverb" is a public relations campaign of the United Church of Christ, which used it to reference the idea of continuous revelation.

silent dog whistleThen came Peter Baker's coverage and analysis in The Washington Post. This would not be the first case of the president's dropping code words. But the comma proverb provided an interesting twist, and Baker was spot on:

The comma remark, though, offers an especially intriguing case study in how a few words can trigger many interpretations. Bush used it in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer aired on Sept. 24 in talking about Iraq. He noted the bloodshed shown on television but hailed the resiliency of the Iraqi people and cited the election last December in which 12 million came to the polls despite the violence.

. . . Then Ian Welsh, on his Agonist blog, postulated a theory about the hidden meaning of the comment, citing the "never put a period" saying and calling it a "dog whistle" comment that only some would understand: "He is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don't hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren't evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right [what it] wants to hear."

But it turns out that the phrase "never put a period" originated not with a Christian conservative figure or biblical passage but with Gracie Allen, the comedienne wife of George Burns. And the phrase is a favorite not of the religious right but of the religious left. The United Church of Christ, which is devoted to fighting for what it calls social justice and opposes the war, adopted the phrase in January 2002.

"I needed something short and succinct," said Ron Buford, the marketing director who came up with it. "When I saw the Gracie Allen quote, I was up all night thinking about it -- God is still speaking, there's more for us to know."

When he heard about Bush's comment, Buford was stunned. "It's ironic that, as savvy as they are about using these quotes to strengthen their base, that he would use a quote that we've been using lately," Buford said.

I doubt that President Bush's speechwriters are intentionally using a slogan from the theological left in an attempt to connect with his base. But it was a fair enough question to ask. Congrats to Baker for rooting out the back story of the allegation and putting the speculation to rest.

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