Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 / 12 Elul, 5761

Lewis A. Fein

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Consumer Reports


Look Ma, No Words: The Death of Political Eloquence


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVER wonder why most politicians struggle with the English language? This question confronts many individuals, elected and non-elected alike, while leaving the current state of political communication somewhere between the idiotic "eloquence" of a thirty-second commercial (substitute Candidate X in lieu of Ivory soap or Colgate toothpaste) and an incoherent conversation with a heavily sedated dental patient. In truth, the death of political eloquence is the product of two related phenomena: television and ignorance.

Yet how can television, the medium responsible for the success of both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, be the culprit behind the nation's current crop of mediocre politicians? The answer is a simple one: television is an effective source for the conveyance of ideas, that communism is evil or government too intrusive; television is a horrible medium for a politician without a message. In part, the lack of a popular and definable message is not necessarily bad.

Government acts less intrusively and inefficiently -- though the federal government is already excessively large -- without an agenda. Admittedly, the choice between a directionless government, one presumably overseen by bureaucrats, and a nation led by an inarticulate and craven political class is grim. But the death of political eloquence -- true oratory, where the goal is noble and the leader is genuine -- leaves the electorate bare.

Television merely reveals the emperor's nakedness, an idea that literally intensifies media coverage --- thus redefining the meaning and purpose of "exposure." Distraction is now the point of political broadcast, where each phrase (poll tested and voter approved) is meaningless and every speech is forgettable. And, before critics cite Ronald Reagan's alleged mastery of the same, there is a fundamental difference between saying something well and communicating nothing (see: Bill Clinton) extraordinarily well. Simply stated: television invites political quackery; the campaign commercial and celebrity infomercial sell the same idea of magical results at an affordable price.

Still, a political quack needs an audience, and the viewing public eagerly obliges. Slogans soon displace meaningful debate, creating the equivalent of a political jukebox. Herewith a sampling of campaigns past: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow"; "Kinder, Gentler Nation"; and, lest there be any doubt among voters about the candidate's intentions, "Ross for Boss".

The problem is, of course, one of simplicity. A political campaign is a contest of ideas, and even life-and-death struggles like slavery include an effective phrase --- "A house divided against itself cannot stand." But Lincoln's eloquence is genuine; it is the product of deep inner reflection.

Unfortunately, today's electorate suffers from an acute case of attention deficit disorder. Again, this phenomenon is not necessarily a sign of impending doom. Ignorance or apathy usually indicates contentment, which furthers political stability. Free of war and devoid of racial upheaval, the public avoids political eloquence. Yet the public's ignorance also attracts unsavory politicians.

So, political eloquence is now the copyrighted material of such populist but fringe "leaders." In the process, anti-Semitism and racism become the coin of political expression. Thus demagoguery displaces substantive debate.

Political eloquence makes the impossible possible, and the possible probable. For a legitimate leader -- a politician, to use a less favorable term -- uses words, not weapons, to advance his agenda. This behavior is the art of public trust and political performance.

Yet a demagogue also uses words (and sometimes even weapons), dispatching surrogates to intimidate and eliminate opponents. A demagogue is emotional, not eloquent; his words inspire hatred and divisiveness. Indeed, a demagogue inspires violence, while a legitimate leader demands justice.

Yes, political eloquence is difficult. Its mantra is no less daunting:

"Speak softly and truthfully, but carry no stick at all."



JWR contributor Lewis A. Fein is a writer and Internet entrepreneur in Los Angeles.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Lewis A. Fein