Bonusgate: The suffix scandal

“Scandalously unoriginal” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 24, 2010).

Here’s another verdict that should come out of the continuing Bonusgate corruption trials in Harrisburg: a cease-and-desist order against future use of the suffix “-gate.”

Here’s what I would like to see in the courtroom: The jury enters the room.

Dauphin County Judge Richard A. Lewis glances at the defendants. After a dramatic pause, he nods to the jury foreman.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what say you?”

“Your honor,” recites the foreman. “We the jury, upon serious deliberation, do hereby find the media guilty of ineptitude, lethargic phrase-turning and excessive use of the suffix ‘-gate.’¤”

Gasps and cries fill the courtroom as reporters wince at the verdict. Guilty.

It has been 38 years since the famed break-in into the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., that brought down Nixon. Nearly four decades have passed, enough time for eight presidents to cycle through the Oval Office, and still countless new scandals get marked with the vestiges of Watergate.

Bonusgate refers to Pennsylvania legislators and aides who allegedly paid campaign workers with government money. This week, it yielded felony convictions for former state Rep. Mike Veon and two ex-aides.

But Bonusgate is just one of many tales of political corruption, abused power and hackneyed headlines.

The list of scandalgates is long, and, sadly, it shows no sign of ending. The list exists at the federal, state and local levels. The Clintons have certainly provided their share: Monicagate, Whitewatergate, Pardongate, to name a few.

Hollywood celebs and professional athletes have contributed to the legacy as well. Most notably, Tigergate.

And most humorously as far as headlines go, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction in Super Bowl XXXVIII — Nipplegate.

At last count, Wikipedia cites 137 so called “-gates,” a listing that seems well-suited for Cliff Clavin-style barside trivia, but not much else.

To give a few Wiki examples: Beachballgate. Spitgate. Fajitagate. Stupidgate. The list goes on and on, and presumably it will continue to grow.

Ironically enough, part of the blame for this phenomenon lays at the hands of a former Nixon speechwriter, the late William Safire.

During his time as a columnist for The New York Times, Safire attributed the -gate suffix to more than a dozen news stories. New York magazine suggested that perhaps Safire was downplaying the unwelcome legacy of Watergate by lending the scandalous suffix to the trials and tribulations of other imperfect politicians.

Such thinking seems a bit too conspiratorial and consciously highfalutin’ to me. (If it were really the case, I suppose the coinage Gategate would be apropos.)

I prefer to think that Safire, being the linguist that he was, was simply having fun. Given his connection to the Nixon administration, I can understand but not pardon his use of -gate. Safire passed away last year, though, and I suggest that the conspiratorial suffix as a catchphrase retire as well.

Failure to do so will perpetuate hackneyed headlines as well as reader indigestion. And like corrupt politicians, the longer they are permitted to be employed, the more frequently they will appear. Not unlike mold spores.

In an age of mounting news coverage and dwindling privacy, reports of scandals will continue to grow. Add to that society’s blame-someone, sue-someone mind-set, and more news events are likely to be inappropriately depicted as scandalous.

The combination, I’m afraid, is a recipe for madness. I can see the headlines already: Hurricanegate: Al Gore conspires with a low pressure system over the Atlantic in an attempt to promote the realities of global warming.

Tollgate: Toll workers vandalize E-ZPass detection systems to ensure job security.

Googlegate: Google leaks list of search phrases from bin Laden’s laptop. “Tina Fay Sarah Palin impression videos” tops list.

Sodagate: The state taxes soda pop; ACLU calls foul.

Controversies and scandals will certainly stand the test of time. Suffixes need not.

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