Skip to Content

Tell It Like It Is

The phrase “tell it like it is” is commonly used to describe politicians or pundits that are perceived as being forthright, candid, and unfiltered in their communication.

It suggests a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, defy political correctness, or break from party lines in favor of transparent discourse.

Politicians who are “straight shooters” like to say that they “tell it like it is” without sugar coating any tough issues.

Origin of “Tell It Like It Is”

The phrase may have been popularized by the 1954 Roy Milton hit, “Tell it like it is.” Since then stars from Aaron Neville to Heart have also performed “Tell it like it is.”

The phrase is closely associated with Malcolm X. In a 1964 speech at the founding of the Organization of African Unity, Malcolm X told a cheering crowd:

Don’t you ever think that just because a cracker becomes president he ceases being a cracker. He was a cracker before he became president and he’s a cracker while he’s president. I’m going to tell it like it is. I hope you can take it like it is.

Just a few years later, “tell it like it is” became a catchphrase for supporters of the pro-segregation governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

Wallace’s fans often yelled “tell it like it is, George” at political rallies.

By the 1970s, the phrase was so widely used and so well-known that it could be used ironically.

A 1973 New York Times piece accusing Richard Nixon of dishonesty ran under the headline “Telling it not quite like it is.”  The article, a response to a radio speech by the president, opened:

President Nixon is on reasonably firm ground in contending that many of the anti‐poverty and other social programs created by Democratic administrations in the 1960’s failed in practice. But the way Mr. Nixon made the case was so partisan and selfserving that he probably was not too persuasive to those considerable number of people who still need convincing.

More on “Tell It Like It Is”

The cliché in which candidates assert they’ll be different from all other politicians by emphasizing candor and honesty, but which in reality can be just another empty boast.

“It promises blunt, no-nonsense talk about the hard truths that others are too craven to acknowledge,” University of California-Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg observed. “The colloquial use of ‘like’ signals blue-collar authenticity. “‘I’ll tell it as it is’ may be grammatically correct, but nobody’s going to want to have a beer with you.”

The phrase caught on in the early 1960s, when black activists used it as a way to confront the realities of race in America. Richard Nixon helped to further popularize it. “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth—to see it like it is, and tell it like it is—to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth; that’s what we will do,” he vowed upon accepting the Republican nomination in 1968.

After launching his bid for the GOP nomination in June 2015, New Jersey governor Chris Christie made “telling it like it is” his campaign theme, putting it beneath his logo on his website. “I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and that’s what America needs right now,” he declared. Other Republican candidates followed suit.

But Slate’s John Dickerson said the promise is inherently problematic. “When you ‘tell it like it is,’ you are suggesting that you’re unimpeded by spin, calculation, or narrative creation—all the things that make other politicians lesser beings,” Dickerson wrote. “But (in truth) you’re making a calculated pitch to seem like you’re not calculating, which is a claim that eats itself.”

In addition, he said, the phrase greatly escalates the overall standard for truth-telling: “For example, a traditional politician would say, ‘We are working to encourage our coalition partners in Iraq.’ A candid politician would say, ‘The Iraqi army is a mess.” A politician telling it like it is would say, “We’re putting American lives at risk for a failed strategy in an ungovernable country.’”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Tell It Like It Is” in a sentence

  • The candidate’s promise to “tell it like it is” resonated with voters who were tired of political doublespeak and evasive answers.
  • While some admired the columnist’s willingness to “tell it like it is,” others argued that his blunt style often crossed the line into incivility or sensationalism.
  • The grassroots organization launched a “Tell It Like It Is” campaign to cut through the political noise and present unvarnished facts about the impact of proposed legislation.