Monday, February 4, 2008

A Historical Moment

I'm talking about last night's Giant win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, of course. Those of us who have lived in the region for long years are still wiping the astonishment out of our eyes. It wasn't supposed to happen but it did, against a team filled with supreme talent, who also had themselves a reputation for dirty tricks.
Speaking of which, William Safire's New York Times column "OnLanguage" yesterday featured political dirty tricks and, of course, yours truly and Anything for a Vote. Read it here. Safire's researcher had contacted me a few weeks back to ask about the derivation of the phrase dirtry tricks; with the help of Oxford University Press researcher Ben Zimmer I came up with an answer. Space didn't permit Safire to use my whole reply, so here it is below.
The phrase "dirty tricks" was used in a non-political context as far back as the late 17th century, when Thomas Traherne wrote in "Christian Ethicks": "But a man that is a resolved and stable Friend,..[will] continue to serve and love his Friend, though he shews him some dirty Tricks." (This is a lesson in turning the other cheek not many a politician today could practice.)
George Washington, while still commanding general of American Revolutionary forces, wrote of a British peace proposal, "they are practising such low and dirty tricks, that Men of Sentiment and honor must blush at their Villainy, among other manoeuvres." Washington was able to run unopposed for the presidency in 1789 and 1792 and therefore missed out on some of the dirty tricks leveled at future candidates, but even he complained, by his second term, that he had become, as his vice-president John Adams so nicely put it, "the Butt of Party Malevolence."
Throughout the 19th century it became quite common for loyalists of one party to accuse their opponents of "dirty tricks" during campaign season. In this context, dirty tricks meant slanderous remarks as well as underhanded dealings. On Feb. 5, 1828, the pro-Jacksonian newspaper the United States Telegraph carried a headline accusing its rival paper, "The Intelligencer at its dirty tricks again!" And on Aug. 8 of that year, the Telegraph detailed the worst of "all the little dirty tricks lately played off by the 'moral and religious party,' (as the friends of Adams have the impudence to call themselves)."
Interestingly enough, in the 20th century, "dirty tricks" came to be applied to covert military operations. During World War II, the espionage operations of the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) was known as "the Department of Dirty Tricks" and by the early 1950s, "dirty tricks" were primarily associated with the activities of the CIA. In the 1960s, possibly because of the pervasive cultural influence of the CIA during the Cold War years, the phrase "dirty tricks" was again used in the context of campaign activities, but now having the sense not of slanderous name-calling, however, scurillous that might be, but of secret operations meant to sabotage. The prime example of this--and the election which elevated the phrase "dirty tricks" to the public prominence it now holds, was 1972. There, Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) planned dirty tricks which included the Watergate break-in. And we find, on November 8, 1972, The Washington Post's masthead editorial:, "The Republican Department of Dirty Tricks" ("In the jargon of professional intelligence agents, this is what is sometimes known as a Department of Dirty Tricks").

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