Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes

Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

To the amusement of the pundits and the regret of the electorate, our modern political jargon has become even more brazenly two-faced and obfuscatory than ever. Where once we had Muckrakers, now we have Bed-Wetters. Where Blue Dogs once slept peaceably in the sun, Attack Dogs now roam the land. During election season—a near constant these days—the coded rhetoric of candidates and their spin doctors, and the deliberately meaningless but toxic semiotics of the wing nuts and backbenchers, reach near-Orwellian levels of self-satisfaction, vitriol, and deceit. The average NPR or talk radio listener, MSNBC or Fox News viewer, or blameless New York Times or Wall Street Journal reader is likely to be perplexed, nonplussed, and lulled into a state of apathetic resignation and civic somnolence by the rapid-fire incomprehensibility of political pronouncement and commentary—which is, frankly, putting us exactly where the pundits want us. Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes is a tonic and a corrective. It is a reference and field guide to the language of politics by two veteran observers that not only defines terms and phrases but also explains their history and etymology, describes who uses them against whom, and why, and reveals the most telling, infamous, amusing, and shocking examples of their recent use. It is a handbook of lexicography for the Wonkette and This Town generation, a sleeker, more modern Safire’s Political Dictionary, and a concise, pointed, bipartisan guide to the lies, obfuscations, and helical constructions of modern American political language, as practiced by real-life versions of the characters on House of Cards.

Paper: $19.95 | E-book: $18.99
ISBN-13: 9781611686036
Pages: 272 | Size: 5.5 in. x 8.5 in.
Date Published: September 2, 2014


  • One would have thought that writing a gripping treatment of the semi-secret slang and code of the DC scene was impossible, but McCutcheon and Mark have done it.  Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes should be the accompanying text for House of Cards or Scandal. Brilliantly written and fun.

    Steve Clemons
    Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and contributor to MSNBC
  • Words matter. Especially when tumbling from the mouths of politicians, words can edify and distort, engage and enrage, delight and depress-but the differences are lost on most of us. Until now. Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark decode the clutter in an extraordinarily accessible and informative book that belongs on the desk of any politically minded reader. It’s my b.s. translator.

    Ron Fournier
    senior political columnist and editorial director of National Journal
  • Dog-whistles, Walkbacks and Washington Handshakes will not be the last book written on political language, because political language will remain as irritating, fascinating, obfuscatory and dishonest as ever. But until the next book comes along, this one will reassure the cynics, anger the idealists, encourage a healthy skepticism and amuse those readers comfortable with the knowledge that nothing has changed and nothing will change.

    Henry Allen
    Wall Street Journal
  • [A]n excellent field guide to the double-talk and weasel words that anyone following the world of politics has to wade through every day.

    Santa Fe New Mexican
  • At the end of the day, let me be clear: this one is a slam dunk.

    Hill Rag

About the Author

David W. Mark

David Mark is the managing editor for the Washington Examiner magazine. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Washington Examiner and, prior to that, a senior editor at Politico for six years and at CNN Digital Politics, among other roles. He is an author of two books, one on negative campaigning and one on political language co-authored with Chuck McCutcheon. David appears regularly as a political analyst on television, radio, and other forums. He has …

Charles McCutcheon

Chuck McCutcheon is a veteran of two decades in Washington, D.C., author/co-author of books on climate change, Congress, political jargon and nuclear waste as well as an editor for a variety of national publications.

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