“All things to all men” is a phrase applied to politicians who seem to be making contradictory promises and statements so that they can appeal to the broadest possible group of voters.
The expression is usually derogatory; it carries roughly the same meaning as “two faced.”
It can also be interchanged with the term “chameleon.”
Origin of “All Things to All Men”
The phrase dates back as far as the Bible, or at least as far back as the 1611 King James translation.
In I Corinthians (9:19-23) St. Paul describes his strategy of converting people to Christianity. In order to reach as many ears as possible, he amends his approach to suit the needs of each listener.
“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” he wrote.
Paul, of course, was moved by his own faith: “I do for the gospel’s sake,” he said. In modern times, however, the phrase “all things to all men” usually connotes pandering and insincerity.
In recent memory, the phrase was used by Bill Clinton’s critics. The president was seen by many as being too slick and too eager to be liked; he was perceived as caring too much about people’s opinions.
Writing in the Observer, Alexandra Jacobs said:
“Is he polymorphous? Is he perverse? He is the man about whom Toni Morrison wrote, “He’s our first black President.” And yet he’s not a black man. He’s just trained, as his generation was, to be all things to all men, and women. And not too much of anything to anyone.”
Barack Obama faced similar criticism when he came into office.
Some political analysts argued that, in order to build up a coalition, candidate Obama had made a series of contradictory promises which he had no means of keeping.
As a result, they said, the president found himself in a tight spot during his first hundred days in office. His supporters were all looking to see whether he’d comply with his promises, and it wasn’t clear what he’d start with.
“He’s under extraordinary pressure to be all things to all people, and he’s going to find that very difficult to manage during his first 100 days,” New York University political science professor Paul Light told USA Today. “There are a lot of people coming to him with checklists of issues they care about, but Congress is not capable of handling a mass rush of legislation.”
Sometimes, though, the phrase “all things to all men” is used to describe an unknown quantity rather than a two-faced con man.
Jonathan Daniels, who served under Franklin Roosevelt, used the expression to refer to Harry Truman. Daniels’ phrasing suggested the high hopes that Americans placed in their new president:
He seemed all things to all men, and all men including New Dealers and anti-New Dealers, Roosevelt friends and Roosevelt enemies, old friends and new ones, members of the 129th field artillery, old time Pendergast politicians, Truman Committee members, the eager and the ambitious, seemed to expect that he would be all things to them.
Use of “All Things to All Men” in a sentence
- The politician’s campaign promises were criticized as trying to be “all things to all men” in an effort to appeal to every voter.
- The candidate was accused of being a “chameleon” who changed positions to be “all things to all men” and gain more votes.
- The opposition party accused the ruling party of being “all things to all men” by changing their stance on key issues to gain more support.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.