word of mouth soundbites

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The Independent Online
Put up or shut up, said John Major, secure in the knowledge that his words would make headlines. But history shows that today's soundbites have a nasty habit of turning into tomorrow's humble pie. The French royal family showed just where this sort of hubris can lead when Louis XIV declared "L'Etat c'est moi" and his successor's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, went one better with "Apres moi le deluge". Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" put a stop to that train of thought.

American presidents have also discovered that a soundbite can bite back. One can only wonder whether the dying Lincoln had time to reconsider his dictum that "the ballot is stronger than the bullet" or whether Nixon was being ironic when he declared "there will be no whitewash at the White House". Reagan will be remembered for "you ain't seen nothing yet", which was what we feared, Ron, and George Bush's only soundbite - "Read my lips: no new taxes" - was his undoing.

In politics a good bite can sum up an entire career. Nixon's "I'm no crook", for example, or the comment attributed to Lyndon B Johnson that "if you get 'em by the balls their minds will follow". But it would be hard to better Neville Chamberlain's "I believe it is peace for our time... peace with honour" after signing the Munich agreement with Hitler. MacMillan told us we'd "never had it so good", which may even have been true, but we voted him out of office just the same. That's the workers for you; "they have nothing to lose but their chains", but what do they do when they shake off the odd shackle? Join the revolutionary vanguard? No, they buy a semi and vote Tory.

Lawyers say you should never ask a question to which you don't know the answer. In politics you should never ask a question to which you might get the wrong answer. Ted Heath asked us in 1974, "who rules Britain, the Government or the unions?" It was a stupid question and got the answer it deserved, a Labour government. Now Major, high on "power, the ultimate aphrodisiac", asks his enemies to "put up or shut up". Well, John, it looks like being the former. Never mind, when all this is over and you're back where you belong as deputy manager of a Little Chef, you can smile at Norma across the deep fry and, echoing Pitt the Younger, tell her: "Oh my country! How I leave my country!"

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