‘Unforced Errors,’ from Tennis to Politics

July 9, 2016

‘Unforced Errors,’ from Tennis to Politics
Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2016

If you’ve been following coverage of the presidential race lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that reporters are serving as line judges at a tennis match—and sloppy ones at that. The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been accused of making “unforced errors,” to use the political metaphor of the moment.

When Bill Clinton had an impromptu visit with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Phoenix airport last week, the encounter raised suspicions that he might be trying to influence the Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of private email as secretary of state. “That was unnecessary,” said The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib.“It’s a bit of what you would call in tennis an unforced error.”

Mr. Trump, for his part, “cannot seem to go two or three days without an unforced error,” CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett said earlier this week. And CNBC’sJohn Harwood tweeted, “extremely close battle for Unforced Error gold medal this summer.”

Perhaps political commentators have been watching too much Wimbledon, where tennis players can fall victim to unforced errors—like top-seed Novak Djokovic, who committed 31 of them in his surprise third-round loss last week to Sam Querrey.

In tennis reporting, “unforced error” has been used since the 1920s to describe self-inflicted miscues on ostensibly easy shots. But the term did not gain much traction until the 1970s, according to Josh Chetwynd in his new book, “The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors.”

The term was formalized as a statistic in 1982, when Information and Display Systems incorporated the “unforced error” into a pioneering computerized stat-tracking system. The company defined it as an error by a player not made “under any physical pressure as a result of the placement, pace, power or spin of their opponent’s stroke.” Within a few years, Mr. Chetwynd notes, the expression seeped into other competitive endeavors, like chess and golf. It was only a matter of time, then, for pundits to seize on the term for needless political flubs.

During the 2000 primary season, for instance, a column in the Detroit Free Press by former editor Joe Stroud was headlined, “Unforced Errors Dot the Campaign Landscape,” though Mr. Stroud credited the phrase to basketball.

Five years later, George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, was deemed an “unforced error” by David Frum, then writing for the National Review. (In the ensuing uproar, Mr. Bush withdrew the nomination at Ms. Miers’s request.)

Now the Clinton-Trump matchup has brought the term to the fore. Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote last year of Mrs. Clinton’s “old propensity for unforced errors,” while the Washington Post’s James Hohmann has lambasted Mr. Trump’s“continuing unforced errors.”

The winner of the election may be whoever can manage to get the metaphorical ball over the net without mucking it up.

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