July 11, 2016

A cliché that seeks to put the best face on a relationship or private meeting between rivals that normally is distant and/or hostile.

“Cordial” is considered a handy meaningless adjective in politics, because it can vaguely sum up pretty much any situation in which two people don’t resort to punching each other.

“I'll just say they had a good conversation and it was very polite and cordial and normal," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said last week after Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) met to discuss the upcoming Republican National Convention – at which Cruz subsequently agreed to speak.

Meanwhile, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott characterized another meeting between Trump and GOP senators as “cordial” – although Trump reportedly did get extremely testy with at least a couple of senators in attendance.

Those Trump sit-downs were just the latest in which the word has surfaced. In May, Trump had what South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham described as a “cordial, pleasant” phone conversation with his onetime GOP presidential rival (though Graham subsequently returned to criticizing Trump). Similarly, in June, strategist/activist Karl Rove had “a cordial conversation for about two hours” with the presumptive Republican nominee at the home of Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, a mutual friend.

Former President George W. Bush surprised some observers in 2013 by giving a tepid response about his relationship with Dick Cheney, his highly controversial vice president. “You know, it’s been cordial,” Bush told C-SPAN, “but he lives in Washington and we live in Dallas.”

The use of “cordial” has been fairly consistent in Congress over the last two decades, with Republicans invoking it more often than Democrats in recent years, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s invaluable CapitolWords.org.

“Cordial” sometimes is paired with “candid,” a euphemistic way of saying that both sides expressed their feelings without coming remotely close to changing the other’s mind. When President Obama met with House Republicans in 2013, both sides used those same terms, along with the meaningless-but-polite adjective “substantive.”

And as President Bill Clinton told reporters in September 1995 of his dealings with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a prelude to a shutdown of the federal government: “Our personal relationship has basically been candid and cordial.”

Two other words in this same family are “useful” and “constructive,” generally employed to describe a closed-door meetings in which little progress was made, but the two sides are still talking.

In his biography of Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle, “Call Me Mike,” Richard Zimmerman discusses a meeting between the governor and John F. Kennedy as latter was seeking to become president in 1960. “Kennedy called their meeting ‘useful’; DiSalle said the conversation was ‘constructive’ – political code words meaning little if anything was accomplished.” But their talks eventually did lead somewhere; DiSalle became the first big-state governor to endorse Kennedy.

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