Washington’s corps of video-pundits celebrated 2017’s final daze by fixating on North Korea’s nukes, Republicans’ disarray and Democrats’ discombobulation.
Then they eased seamlessly into their 2018 obsession over President Donald Trump’s “Fire and Fury,” as told by his fired and furious.
But inside the traditionally cheerless chambers and cubicles of the federal bureaucracy, newly arrived TrumpWorld ideologues and their career-professional colleagues ended 2017 with a clash of cross words over banned words that never really received the insightful help only a certified pundit can provide.
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For I have not only seen this problem once before — but I remember how a senior official solved it by devising a creative workaround.
As controversies go, this Trump administration version is one that (to paraphrase poet Robert Frost), couldn’t be called ungentle, but how thoroughly departmental — and governmental. We might never have known about this except it was revealed in a scoop by The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin.
At a budget meeting with senior officials in the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, policy analysts were reportedly told by a senior official that they are now prohibited from using seven words and phrases in official documents and presentations: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” diversity,” transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The official was relaying instructions from higher-ups. CDC is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The guidance, as delivered to the policy analysts, reportedly included one suggested workaround. Instead of “evidence-based” or “science-based,” the analysts were encouraged to say: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” Whatever that means.
The Post scoop quoted an unnamed longtime CDC analyst who said: “In my experience, we’ve never had any pushback from an ideological standpoint.”
The analyst said others in the room were “incredulous” at hearing about the Trump administration’s forbidden words, adding: “It was very much, ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding?”
My reaction was a bit different: Where’s Alfred Kahn when we really need him?
Actually, we know the answer.
Kahn, a highly-respected economist and regulatory scholar, who was the architect of President Jimmy Carter’s deregulation of the airline industry, died in 2010 at age 93.
But to describe Kahn in just those terms — or even to say he also reluctantly agreed to serve as Carter’s White House inflation czar, as head of the Council on Wage and Price Stability — is to miss the essence of this unique figure in resolving mundane matters of governance.
For Kahn became a superhero of those of us who had yearned in vain for straight-talk from an economist — a skill that was enhanced by the fact that he also possessed a world-class Groucho Marx moustache and a world-class talent for quick-draw quips.
The combination somehow enabled him to be able to technically obey a presidential word-ban — while smashing it to de-facto smithereens, in a way that left even his outraged bosses laughing.
One day in 1978, Carter was said to have been furious that Kahn had publicly warned of the importance of preventing a “recession;” Kahn was told to avoid using the term, lest he generate a climate leading to an economic downturn.
So Kahn came up with a euphemism — instead of “recession” he began using the word “banana.”
As in: “Between 1973 and 1975 we had the deepest banana that we had in 35 years, and yet inflation dipped only very briefly.”
Soon Kahn encountered another presidential objection — the president of United Fruit Company chided him for denigrating bananas. So instead, Kahn started saying “kumquat.”
With inflation topping 10 percent in 1979, Kahn, who had large problems and no staff, wanted to leave his job. At one point he famously joked: “I can’t figure out why the president doesn’t fire me.” (He paused.) “Actually, I do know. Nobody would be foolish enough to take this job.”
Which brings me back to the CDC.
Predictably, after the Post’s scoop appeared, the CDC’s new director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, faced a wave of criticism — from both inside and outside her agency. She did not refute the account of what policy analysts had been told at that meeting. But she quickly tweeted a denial that any such thing was now the CDC policy.
“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC,” said the new director.
How do you like them pineapples?
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.