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“Nattering nabobs” and the power of words: Whatever happened to…?

The phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” popped into my head the other day, and I decided to take an hour to refresh my memory. I knew it was attributed to Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice-president who resigned in disgrace.

And my little research was worth the effort.

My first source (after the obligatory Google search) took me to an article that appears to have been published originally in the Philadelphia Daily News in September 2009. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the author’s name at the Philly.com website where it appeared (located here at the time I first called it up). The article described how the “nattering nabobs” line was written by William Safire, then a speechwriter (apparently, for Agnew and others).

GWB and LB.  Ceremony for 2006 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

William Safire receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush, 2006. (White House public domain photo by Shealah Craighead)

Safire, with his infectious obsession with the English language, was one of my earlier heroes. So the article was a welcome history lesson into one of the darker times in American history. And at the top of the page (at least when I visited the Philly.com website that day) was a banner ad for a signed, limited-edition copy of “The Art of the Deal,” by Donald J. Trump.

And so I had gone full circle, as the “nattering nabobs” line had first popped into my head as something that Mr. Trump might spout at any particular moment. And, if you follow my route as described here, you’ll see how “nattering nabobs” is still at the heart of the right-left debate (or, if you prefer, the left-right debate) in the United States.

I ended up spending only a minute or two reviewing Agnew’s bio at Wikipedia, here. It quickly reminded me of this sad, sad moment in American politics, which in reality is still with us. Which is more than Agnew or Safire can say, as Agnew died in 1996 (of undiagnosed leukemia) and Safire (Wikipedia bio here) in 2009, of pancreatic cancer.

The only mystery unanswered? Who wrote the original Daily News article on “nattering nabobs”?

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