The Transition is a magical time when political junkies get to remind themselves of all the wacky titles that are out there lurking in the bureaucracy. And then there’s the White House, where titles tend to be kept short and sweet. You’ve got your assistants to the president, and you’ve got your special assistants to the president. And I, for one, always think it’s odd that the special assistants are outranked by the plain old assistants. It’s a reminder that special is a, well, special kind of word in the English language (see amusing Nestle ad copy below, clearly a result of a too-literal translation from French):
If you were to talk about a “special friend” or “that special someone in your life,” you’d be elevating the modified noun above your regular friends. Similarly, it seems to me that the president’s special assistants should be his most-valued advisers, not his most-valued advisers’ underlings. After all, everyone’s special to someone, but a special assistant to the president should be special to the president. Like, “gee David, you sure did a great job helping me beat the establishment candidate in the primary and then the most popular politician in America — you’re not just an assistant, you’re a special assistant.” Instead, though, the White House seems to operate on a Special Olympics paradigm. The special assistants are even outranked by the deputy assistants.