There are often several ways to irritate people — some direct, some more cryptic. Republicans have a way of irritating Democrats that also has frustrated some listeners.
They don’t like to hear NPR journalists or guests use the noun ‘Democrat’ as an adjective.
As in: “What Democrat lawmakers want to do — hang with me here,” said NPR Correspondent Andrea Seabrook, who covers Congress, “is pass the changes that they want to this bill in the House at the same time that they pass the Senate bill itself.”
Josephine Bennett, a reporter/host for Georgia Public Broadcasting recently emailed asking about NPR’s policy after she heard Seabrook on Morning Edition about the upcoming health care bill.
NPR’s policy is to call parties what they call themselves, said Ron Elving, NPR’s senior Washington editor. The proper name is the Democratic Party. Democrat is a noun and Democratic is the adjective to describe the party.
“When using democratic or Democratic as an adjective, it should be the adjectival form with ‘ic’ on the end,” said Elving. “We should not refer to Democrat ideas or Democrat votes. Any deviation from that by NPR reporters on air or on line should be corrected.”
While Seabrook’s words were later corrected in the transcript, they are not corrected on air.
Initially, I thought what’s the big deal? One listener said it would be like calling me by another name than my own and thinking that’s ok.
It turns out this is a perceived slight that goes back decades.
“Why Republicans asked for years, should we allow the Democrats to get away with the adjective ‘democratic’?” wrote New York Times language maven William Safire in 1984. “As a result, partisan Republicans, especially those who had been head of the Republican National Committee, called the opposition ‘the Democrat party.'”
The habit was begun by Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey in 1940. According to Safire’s Political Dictionary, in 1955 Leonard Hall, a former Republican chairman, began referring to the “Democrat” rather than the “Democratic” party.
Hall dropped the ‘ic ‘ because, he said, “I think their claims that they represent the great mass of the people, and we don’t, is just a lot of bunk.”
President George W. Bush sometimes called it the Democrat Party — much to the ire of Democrats.
In a 2007 NPR interview, NPR’s Juan Williams asked Bush if he purposely referred to the “Democrat majority” — instead of the Democratic majority — during that year’s State of the Union address.
Williams told the president using that categorization for Democrats is “like fingernails on the blackboard. They don’t like it.”
Bush said it was an oversight.
“Look, I went into the hall [the House chamber in the Capitol] saying we can work together, and I was very sincere about it. I didn’t even know I did it,” said Bush. “And if I did, I didn’t mean to put fingernails on the board. I meant to be saying, ‘Why don’t we show the American people we can actually work together.’ ”
At the time, Tim Graham, director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog weighed in with this post, accusing the left-wing media of getting the vapors over this inconsequential issue.
“I fail to understand how “Democrat Party” is a fiendish term for a Democrat,” Graham wrote in an email Thursday. “It’s not like the leftists and their terms like “Repugnicans.”
The real sting in the use of Democrat as an adjective goes back to the virulent anti-Communist Wisconsin Republican, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“Back in the 1950s, Joe McCarthy and his entourage began using Democrat Party and explaining by way of saying they didn’t think the Dems really represented democratic ideas, etc. and should not be allowed to call themselves democratic,” said Elving. “Most news organizations quoted his usage but did not adopt it.”
Elving said that in the 1980s, former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich revived the usage of Democrat Party.
NPR’s then-White House correspondent, David Greene, was asked about this in a February 2007 interview with NPR host Scott Simon.
GREENE: Republicans have been using Democrat as an adjective off and on for years. Some say it started in the 1940s when Republicans said the other party was controlled by labor bosses and big city machines, and so not really democratic at all. The infamous Joe McCarthy was fond of the shortened term in the 1950s. And in 1976, when Senator Bob Dole was President Gerald Ford’s vice presidential running mate, Dole used the term in a debate.
Senator BOB DOLE (Republican, Kansas): I figured up the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.
GREENE: That has been remembered as one of the most bitter partisan attack lines in American politics. And more recently, the term was popularized again by Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich in the 1980s and ’90s. So in his January 23rd State of the Union, was Mr. Bush trying to get under Democrats’ skin? He insisted in an interview with NPR this week that there was no ill intent.
It may be much ado about not much, but NPR should stick to its policy and call parties by their proper names. It’s not just Seabrook who made that mistake. Do a search for “Democrat Party” on npr.org and you’ll find other NPR staff using Democrat as an adjective.
While NPR can’t control when guests use the term Democrat Party, it can insist correspondents be consistent.