It’s a Grand Old Bargain

I read in USA Today  on June 9th that Detroit’s Big Three auto makers have “committed $26-million to the grand bargain on which much of the city’s exit from bankruptcy is based.” The “grand bargain,” the newspaper went on to explain, is a complicated arrangement in which the Detroit Institute of Arts “and its masterworks will be spun off to a nonprofit trust for the equivalent of $816-million, with proceeds set aside to help reduce pension reductions for thousands of city workers.”

Needless to say, I wish the Motor City well, but (almost needless to say) the thing that intrigued me about the article was the phrase grand bargain. I was well aware that it had been used to describe the now-moribund efforts between Congress and the president to achieve a bipartisan plan for reducing the deficit. But the Detroit news made me wonder where, exactly, did grand bargain originate, and what (if anything) has it come to mean?

The first notable use in the Google Books database comes from Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy, in which a character, discussing a horse and using the characteristic Scottish dialect, says: “And I hae bought this on your honour’s account. It’s a grand bargain—cost but a pund sterling the foot.” This fellow uses the phrase literally—that is, to mean a really good bargain. But about a decade later, Thomas Carlyle, in an essay on the Faust legend, refers to the character’s “grand bargain” with the devil. That’s grand in the, well, grander sense we’re used to now. 

However, with a few isolated exceptions, the phrase didn’t start to be used to refer to political and diplomatic negotiations until the 1970s, as in a 1978 New York Times editorial on Mideast peace prospects advising President Jimmy Carter against “deeply involving himself in the intricacies of policing feeble little Lebanon and losing sight of the grand bargain he had envisioned.”

Soon after that, the phrase started to become notably more popular, as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer graph:

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In the Times archives, grand bargain tends to pop up in clusters every few years to describe a certain sort of deal—one in which uncomfortable concessions have to be made by both sides in exchange for a hoped-for significant and mutually beneficial result. It really established itself in the early 1990s, in the context of what the Times columnist Leslie Gelb described as “a proposed Western plan for aiding Moscow to promote reforms.” After that, in the 90s alone, there are mentions of grand bargains involving South African racial progress, international trade, a chemical-weapons treaty, global arms control, and welfare reform. The phrase started being applied to D.C. fiscal talks way back in the summer of 2011, and it still is.

There is still no overarching budget deal, obviously, and when you go through the roster of proposed grand bargains, it cannot escape you that the majority of them failed. I don’t mean to say that the phrase caused the failures, but I do believe language is relevant in this narrative. Grandis an old-fashioned word, redolent of high collars and high sincerity, whether in the sense of momentous (the Grand Canyon, Grand Hotel) or wonderful. (My college buddies and I were tickled by Ruby Keeler’s bit of dialogue in 42nd Street, directed at Dick Powell: “Why, Jim, they didn’t tell me you were here. It was grand of you to come!”) Affixing it to a piece of statecraft, in this ironic age, can’t help bringing with it at least a suggestion of quixotic wishful thinking. It also retains a bit of Carlyle’s sense, of a deal with the devil.

All of which is to say that I sincerely hope Detroit gets back on its feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.