all things to all men

“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.”

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.”