Lately, Rachel Maddow has been falling into one of my favorite annoying bugaboos that the Bush Administration did so often. She's been referring to Attorney General Eric Holder as "General Holder." During the Bush Years, they regularly did the same thing with whoever was their Attorney General, though most often with Alberto Gonzales, who had to testify before Congress. Calling him "General Gonzales" gave the patina of not just importance, but military importance. And military importance, when we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and had a "War President" was a critical amount of gravitas, most especially for such a lightweight. Most especially when testifying before Congress. How could you not take the word of a "general" when we're at war and he's under oath? And all the better when using a bit of razzle dazzle to try and make the public forget that what he actually is a lawyer. You know, one of "them." The kind of profession so many people think so little of.
It wasn't just for Mr. Gonzales, of course. But when John Ashcroft was Attorney General and doing his machinations, it helped him, as well, to be promoted to General Ashcroft. And even Surgeon Generals got the military treatment, as Richard Carmona was often referred to as "General Carmona."
Other Administrations have done this, but the Bush Administration turned such linguistic manipulation into an art form.
And now, for some reason, Rachel Maddow is doing it. As "General Holder" has gotten involved with events in Missouri.
But he is not "General Holder." Nor was Alberto Gonzales "General Gonzales." Or any of the others "generals."
"General" in Attorney General or Surgeon General is not a noun. It's an adjective. And anyone who doubts it, consider: "attorney" is not an adjective. "Surgeon" is not an adjective.
There are attorneys throughout an administration doing specific assignments for specific work. But at the top, there's one attorney overseeing them all, who in charge, not of any specific aspect of the law, but of the general area of justice. He is the Attorney-General.
(And the plural is, in fact, "attorneys general.")
Yes, okay, I know this is a bit donnish of me (or more than a bit), but however boookish, I nonetheless don't look at this even remotely as merely the Grammar Police. It ruffles me, not because people are getting the language wrong, but because this is a matter that actually has political impact. As I noted before, there was a political reason during the Bush Administration, for instance, to obfuscate who Alberto Gonzales was in the public's eye when he was being grilled by Congress over allegations that Democratic U.S. Attorneys were being fired for political reasons. Mr. Gonzales had to be seen as above petty politics, above being a mere lawyer. He had to be seen as...A General. Ten-hut!!!
And it's generally the reason it's done by any administration, even if the immediate reasons aren't so critical. But it's still done to give them more importance. And I believe that it's why Rachel Maddow is doing it with Eric Holder.
To be fair, I think that some people do it because they actually think it's correct. But even when that's the case, they're still trying to give the person gravitas. Why else suddenly refer to an Attorney General instead as "General"? Or call the Surgeon General a 'General"? You want to give the person a promotion. .
But they are not "Generals."
"General Holder" is not there to take command of the Missouri National Guard. Attorney General Eric Holder is there to see that justice is done.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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