Politics ’88: Send $2.95 Now for Your Free Decoder

<i> Josh Greenfeld's three books about his son, Noah, will be re-released this month in paperback (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). </i>

Back in the broadcast radio days of the 1930s, I once badgered my mother into buying a bottle of Ovaltine. I did not expect to enjoy my compulsory after-school glass of milk any more by spiking it with a spoonful of that malt-flavored vitamin-enhanced additive than in drinking it down straight. What I wanted, of course, was the label on the bottle. Which I immediately tore off and mailed away to be redeemed for a Little Orphan Annie decoder. Once I had my decoder, the announcer had promised, I would be privy to the coded secret “messages” broadcast at the end of each daily Little Orphan Annie serial episode.

Each presidential candidate throughout this long 1988 campaign season harps about his “message” as insistently as the Little Orphan Annie announcer used to hawk the decoders. And the pundits and lay reporters of both the press and television news have picked up on the term, forever discussing and debating each candidate’s so-called message and his efficacy in delivering it. But no matter how attentively I listen to the candidates, I have yet to hear a single “message.”

And I don’t think I am missing anything because of some lack on my part. Rather I suspect it’s because, having dutifully drunk my milk both with and without Ovaltine during my formative years,I can still recall what a “message” is supposed to be and how the word was once used and the grand ring it had to it.

A message implied a significant communication, one of great import. Presidents sent them to Congress and religious leaders delivered them unto their followers. A message carried a moral imperative, explained a philosophical position, encapsulated an artistic credo. However, a message could also be most worldly and downright pragmatic. In the heat of battle, generals dispatched them to each other and woe to any spies caught intercepting them. Even Hollywood and Broadway producers considered messages such serious business that they eschewed any vehicles containing them.


As a child during the Depression, I regarded messages with awe and respect. Not only did I have to study the essay, “A Message from Garcia,” in school; the appearance of a khaki-clad Western Union messenger at the door of our telephoneless home could only mean such portentous news as a birth or, more frequently, a death in the family.

Thankfully, our language has not become as impoverished as our TV-news-bitten candidates and the commentators would have it appear to be. There are far more precisely descriptive if less euphemistic terms for what they have been so blithely referring to as “messages.” Pitches, sales spiels, come-ons, selling points, campaign promises, hypes, overstatements, exaggerations, exhortations, simplifications, cliches, homilies, maxims, slogans, spins, mnemonic schemes, incantations, even plea bargains are just a few. They can pick one, or pick all. But no more “messages,” please.

Because whenever I hear their talk of “messages,” I remember the traumatic letdown I experienced the day my Little Orphan Annie decoder arrived in the mail. I eagerly sat down before our wood-framed Franklin that evening waiting for the secret “message” at the end of the broadcast. Finally, it came and I twisted the decoder back and forth until I decrypted: “D-R-I-N-K O-V-A-L-T-I-N-E.”

Which, of course, I never again did.