‘It Is What It Is’? Well, Not Actually.

By: Shawn Moynihan

It’s out of control. Just in the past two days the press has reported it coming from the lips of, among other well-known people, director Ang Lee, Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, and singer Rosanne Cash. But when it comes from the chief spokesman at the White House concerning a truly serious subject, I have to draw the line.

It’s one thing to circumvent the truth. It’s another thing to lie. But to deflect questions about a topic as crucial as the Bush administration’s admitted use of domestic spying by invoking one of the most say-nothing, let’s-change-the-subject phrases ever to creep into the English language, is something else entirely.

Wednesday’s White House press briefing this week centered on the continuing debate over National Security Agency monitoring — without a warrant — which the president this week re-labled a “terrorist surveillance program.” Reporters, who in recent months have become more vocal in challenging Press Secretary Scott McClellan during the briefings, grilled McClellan on the re-naming and downplaying of the “domestic” angle.

The press secretary responded in part with a phrase he’s used before when he comes under fire — one that’s about as offensive as it gets to those of us who still care about words and their meaning. Check out the following exchange and see if you spot it right away. From Wednesday’s transcript:

MR. McCLELLAN: You don’t call a flight from New York to somewhere in Afghanistan, a domestic flight. It’s called an international flight.

Q Right, but —

MR. McCLELLAN: This is international communications that are being monitored —

Q: But whatever — it’s David’s point, too — I mean, whatever you call it —

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s what it is.

Q: — is being spied on. Someone’s communications —

MR. McCLELLAN: It is what it is.

Full disclosure here — as managing editor of E&P, I read a lot of copy. Language in all its forms fascinates me. Communication, be it lingual, physical, musical or otherwise, in the end is really all we have. When used effectively, it is, quite simply, the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal. And when it’s misused, for someone who considers word use of great importance, it’s deeply offending.

The phrase “It is what it is,” for the uninitiated, is one of the most deflective, meaningless, redundant, and idiotic phrases in the English language. And not surprisingly — mostly because it’s at times useful for ending an argument without having to justify your point — it’s beginning to penetrate the vernacular. And certainly, the White House.

We’re barely into the pre-Super Bowl media frenzy and Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher already has used the phrase, “responding” to questions about how he deals with criticism. The same day, Wednesday, Ang Lee, director of “Brokeback Mountain,” described concerns about the gay theme of the movie as, you guessed it, “It is what it is.” Meanwhile, Rosanne Cash, after expressing some qualms about the movie about her father, “Walk the Line,” finally said, “It is what it is.”

The cliche is used most often as a declaratory way of saying, “I’m done talking about this. I can’t or don’t want to quantify my logic in this exchange; I have no defense. Just accept what I’m saying without any further argument, and let’s change the subject.” So to see it used so blithely by Scott McClellan when discussing a matter as serious as listening in illegally on peoples’ conversations is absolutely galling.

To be sure, there are plenty of people out there for whom domestic evesdropping is simply not a big deal in the greater scheme of things. For them, the idea of Big Brother having the unchecked power to listen in on their communications, whether e-mail, phone conversations or otherwise, isn’t as important as “keeping us safe” from the spectre of an elusive enemy who wishes to do us harm.

That debate aside, however, McClellan’s offense is a deliberate grammatical crime of evasiveness. It’s a textbook example of using lowest-common-denominator language in an attempt to pull a fast one on the masses. But that doesn’t mean that people who still see the value of words should stand for it. Especially newspapers.

This isn’t the first time McClellan has inadequately answered a press question with the phrase-that-doesn’t-pay. As Joshua Marshall’s Talking Points blog points out, the press secretary raised eyebrows when he last used this convenient non-answer on Feb. 19, 2004 while responding to press questions about campaign chairman Marc Racicot’s statement that the administration’s job prediction or the job forecast that year in the Council of Economic Advisers report was a “goal.”

From the White House transcript:

QUESTION: Scott, on taxes and jobs, your campaign chairman, Marc Racicot this morning said that the job prediction or the job forecast in the CEA report was a “goal.” You indicated to us yesterday that it was simply a figure that was based on economic modeling. So what is it? Is it an objective analysis of the current state of the economy, or was that a political document?

Scott McClellan: John, I think it is what it is. The data is a snapshot that economists use at a point in time for economic modeling. That’s what I said yesterday. So it is what it is —

Q: Right, but Racicot —

Scott McClellan: — and it’s based on the data available at that point in time.

Q: So was Racicot wrong in describing it as a goal?

Scott McClellan: I haven’t seen those specific remarks. I’ll be glad to look at them, but it is what it is, and it is how I described it yesterday.

[Here there was a short and snappy back-and-forth between John and Scott on the difference between predictions and goals, and what the definition of ‘is’ is.]

Scott McClellan: John, I’m giving you the facts. It is what it is.

Enough already. If the best that the presidential press secretary can do is offer the 21st century’s first true lingual-swindle catch phrase in the face of an issue as critical as spying on American citizens, America may be in more trouble than we think — and the press has far more work to do than we thought in fulfilling our mission, which, the last time I checked, was keeping the public informed.

With this in mind, you might say McClellan is correct in his assertion that “It is what it is.” For the phrase “domestic spying” means exactly what it sounds like: spying.

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