Punctuational excess 

An unsung consultant or advisor surely took home a big bonus for introducing the exclamation point into the Asa Hutchinson for Governor campaign. The campaign’s name – now official, I guess – is Asa! I wish it were not so but it is. I wish I could explain it – or accept it with aplomb – but I can’t. At the least I wish I could explain why it creeps me out, and I will try. The exclamation point seems to serve here as a kind of twirling baton. Or a wand that prestidigitates poor old Homeland Security dud recently-let-go Asa into a veritable bandwagon: Asa! A little punctuation can work wonders, all right, but it can also serve your critics and detractors. Those of a sarcastic turn might read that same Asa! exclamation point to mean, “Asa! You gotta be kidding me!” or, “You’ll never guess which of them Hutchinson goobers is running for governor this time … Asa!” There’s also a subtler contraindication in this particular case. An incompatibility or incongruity, or something ruinous or preposterous occurs when the austere name is yoked with the giddy punctuation. It’s like Fielding’s pairing of the puritan with the blackleg that John Randolph complained of so memorably. Like Jerry Lee Lewis and his child bride. Asa is an unusual name. It’s an old-fashioned name, a Biblical name, like Caleb or Boaz or Hezekiah or Skeeter. (No, delete the Skeeter.) A stern name that would require a really funny story to make it crack a smile. Call the name Asa and you might expect a sunburnt desert goatherd of yore, or, more contemporarily, a dour Mormon elder, to raise his hand. Now there’s nothing wrong with the name Asa, and nothing wrong with Mormon elders, either – but to hitch the venerable name to an exclamation point is to make it into an oxymoron. At the photo op, the ! of Asa! wants to reach furtively behind the Asa and goose it, just as shutter clicks and the bulb pops. An unseemly unruliness inheres. The ! just can’t work its magic on Asa as it does on Elvis, say, or Geraldo, or Zorro. It feels put upon, as it would if it had been assigned to hump up Droopy or King Lear or Mr. Bean. It can do a lot but it can’t transmogrify a Mormon elder into Nathan Detroit in a four-character span. That’s just asking too much. What Asa needs punctuationally, in my opinion, rather, is a period. The exclamation says he’s a flashy guy, and you know that’s b.s.; but the period only says he’s a solid guy, and we’re willing to give that the benefit, at least for a time. With the period, Asa is declarative and complete and self-contained and under control, not a fragment, not flighty, not one of those lords-a-leaping as in the Christmas song. The period is what most politicians aspire to, or what they should aspire to. A question mark raises doubts; an asterisk dogs one’s credibility, and a colon always conjures juvenile notions concerning dysentery. The ellipsis suggests a droner. The ampersand raises the specter of schizophrenia. Quotation marks are all right around a nickname, but a politician who willingly espouses a nickname is already admitting to being something of a nincompoop. The exclamation point is the politician’s direst punctuational enemy, though – an assertion that becomes inarguable with the mention of only two words: Howard Dean. Dean’s real offense was exclamatory piling on – he frogged up at least half a dozen of the !!!!!!’s , and just the one triple is usually sufficient to explode an otherwise formidable candidacy into debris scraps and tatters for the stand-ups to paw and chortle over. Al Gore’s macho image makeover included an exclamation point, as I recall – only one of them, and it was hastily discarded, but too late. The reason the exclamation point is politically hazardous is that it portrays the candidate as one who’s eager to do something once he gets in office, to change things, to stir the pot and rock the boat. But that is exactly what the American people don’t want in a candidate. They don’t want a do-something leader. They want a do-nothing one. Amiable, a little on the dumb side, beholden to cronies – all well and good. A total scoundrel – OK. As long as he’ll just fiddle fart his term away, the country will muddle along just fine. But they always get the wild hair – containment, making the world safe for democracy – or start hearing the siren-song of reform. All the country wants from them is nothing, but they’ll have none of that, and so pretty soon it all goes to crap, it’s another fine mess, and the job-performance numbers bottom out down with the journalists, lawyers, passing-lane slowpokes, and homicidal maniacs. This matter of politics and English language punctuation is one I hope to treat further later. It occurs to me, for instance, that we don’t have nearly enough punctuation marks. There should be one indicating a sigh. A yawn. A dry heave. A gasp. A pregnant pause. A smile. A sob. An ejaculation, but only, of course, in the grammatical sense of the word.


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