I knew I’d made a mistake when I let the conversation drift away from sports. It was easy to tell we both held Randy Johnson’s fastball in the highest esteem and wished he’d overcome his control issues, but Bush’s foreign policy was uncharted territory, and it became painfully obvious we had differing opinions. I made my most vehement argument for the easy dismissal of George W. as a puppet, desperate to win the approval of his father and a cabinet of corporate cronies. I pleaded my case about a conservative agenda, undermining the rights of women and immigrants in the United States. I was practically standing on my chair flagging down airplanes about Bush’s invasion and subsequent colonization of Iraq, his 16 little words about African plutonium, his abhorrent pronunciation of the word nuclear. My acquaintance wasn’t to be moved. His arguments were almost as stock as mine and I huffily ignored what he was saying, writing it off as conservative jargon until he earnestly leaned across the table and said, “I don’t care how he talks, why should eloquence matter in a president?”
Excuse me, but why shouldn’t eloquence matter in a president? When did sophistication become a negative trait in a politician? I prefer my world leaders smarter and better spoken than I am. I am an idiot. I would not like to see myself running the country. I barely trust myself making lattes.
In his new book, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care,” John McWhorter follows the evolution of the orator from the brilliant manipulations of political speech at the birth of our country to the forgettable rhetoric of recent presidents. In defense of modern candidates, he points out that without the aid of electronic amplification, speakers had to be booming and larger than life. With PA’s politicians are allowed a new level of intimacy not before afforded them. The epic speech was almost more geared to keeping people’s attention than to changing their minds.
But just in recent years, we’ve seen a rapid decline in the poetic value of rhetoric. After Sept. 11, Bush was in the position to give rousing and epic orations, speeches of the magnitude of the acts that caused them. Instead, we had the pleasure of seeing him stumble through paranoid rants about “bad guys” and the Axis of Evil. His sentences were short and reparatory, his diction stilted and his pronunciation abhorrent. People still use and recognize Kennedy’s sayings, his impassioned condemnation of the communist threat and his call for a nuclear test ban treaty. FDR’s address to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor, his “date which will live in infamy,” was provocative and powerful, something that secured his place as one of the great defenders of America. With Bush, all we get is the man who stole the presidency, lied to the world and choked on a pretzel.
McWhorter blames the casual linguistic approach characterized by the ’60s subculture. It lowered the bar with its distrust of the political system and its aristocratic leanings. I don’t know if I agree with that. I still see the aristocracy occupying Capital Hill, only now they say “dude” and dress as farmers in their advertisements. In fact, the “everyman” face of politics to me seems considerably more devious than a well-versed candidate. In fact, the norm now is to assert oneself as not a politician but as someone who has decided to dabble in politics. As Benjamin DeMott points out in his essay on “Junk Politics,” politicians have embraced their slim connections with the voters. Dean isn’t a politician; he’s a doctor who’s running for president. Never mind that time he spent as governor of Vermont. He was just a doctor playing governor. And sure Gephardt was a renowned homophobe, but now his daughter is gay, so he’s cool with gay, and his other daughter is a teacher, so he’s cool with poor, and his son almost died of cancer, so he’s cool with sickly. He’s just like you and me, a sick, poor, gay person. Not a devious politician putting on a good face, just a normal guy. FDR was so afraid of seeming unworthy of the esteem of the American people, he hid his handicaps rather than playing them up.
It’s an underhanded game of hide-the-issue. Politicians give you sob stories, or inspirational examples, but no facts. After all, taking a stand is dangerous and creates the possibility that some one might disagree with you. And then you won’t get their vote. DeMott points out Bush’s televised denouncement of Affirmative Action at the university of Michigan was firm and unrelenting, until, of course, the Supreme Court upheld the policies, when Bush made an about-face supporting the “value of diversity on our nations campuses.”
With examples like this, of course rhetoric is going to suffer. Politicians don’t care about change. They’re just after the homogenous vote. We have doctors, lawyers, CEOs, movie stars and fucking janitors running for office, but heaven forbid they want to change anything. Can you imagine a presidential debate based entirely in anecdotes and the farm report? The idea is mind-numbing. At this point, I wish we had the Cold War back. At least then we’d have the daily threat of new-cu-lur war to worry about, rather than the incompetence of that cab driver running for president.