Bob Franken: Words backward

Growing up in the South, I always marveled at how adept everyone was at well-mannered hatefulness. If someone made a stupid comment, the response would never be “What an idiot you are!” Instead it was “Well, ain’t that nice?” or “Why, bless your heart.” When it came to social-grace duplicity, we were the champions.

Or so I thought.

That was before I came to Washington. It takes a little getting used to, but for the most part, you must accept that people mean the opposite of what they say. If most say “Nice to see you,” they are actually looking over your shoulder at someone more important. The really good ones somehow manage to make eye contact with you while looking past you at the same instant. It’s pretty amazing, really.

And anyone who has watched the Senate is well-aware that the members refer to their most despised enemies as “My Friend.” That extends far beyond the Capitol. If anyone calls you his or her “friend,” watch your back. Even though Harry Truman said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” don’t even count on the puppies.

There’s nothing new about this, and it’s not unique to D.C. We all have our moments of not meaning what we say. The normal greeting is “How are you doing?” The automatic answer is “Fine, thank you.” But let’s face it: We usually couldn’t care less about how someone is doing, and we certainly don’t want to hear when he is not fine. The last thing we want is “Actually terrible. My wife has left me for a younger man, my business is bankrupt, and the bank just foreclosed on my house.”

What do you say? If you grew up in the South, perhaps you’d respond with an “ain’t that nice” or “bless your heart,” in which case you’d mean, “I’m sorry, did you say something?” Or you’d escape as fast as you could.

“Thank you for asking” is another one, a deflecting response to the insincere “How you doing?” greeting. “Thank you for asking” translates to “None of your business.”

And then there’s flattery. The more someone sings your praises to your face, the more he changes his tune behind your back. Perhaps Michael Kinsley is correct, though, with his observation that insincere flattery is really sincere, because the person lavishing compliments thinks you’re worthwhile enough to insincerely flatter. That one requires a little attention.

Again, it’s Washington, where phoniness is real and pervasive. Here it’s barely noticed that the same Republicans who were demanding that the administration bring back Taliban hostage Bowe Bergdahl at any cost now are raising Cain about the very fact that a deal was made for his return. Some of these very same GOP stalwarts constantly demand that the president intervene militarily in just about any hotspot in the world. If he does take military action, then they’re criticizing a move that may trap us in another Vietnam-like morass.

It’s galling how shamelessly these guys flip-flop, and what’s really infuriating is how President Barack Obama even lets them bother him. He really should figure out that it’s always “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” for him, which is easy for his critics. Deception is accepted as the norm here, and they never have to eat their words.

Hillary Clinton shows she’s no slouch at this when she chooses her language. Some might know that my fakery favorite is the expression “I wish him well,” which is code for condemning someone to a miserable life. Bless her heart, in the first of the umpteen TV interviews she did to promote her new book and semicandidacy announcement, Hillary told ABC’s Diane Sawyer she wished not only Rand Paul well, but also Monica Lewinsky. Ain’t that nice?

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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