It’s all Gamalielese to me

04Nov08

On Election Day, I contemplate presidents and powerful words.

I help my friend Elizabeth write a newsletter about business communication, and in this issue, we nominate buzzwords from the U.S. presidential election that we’d like to see banished for good. Needless to say, “maverick” tops the list, though we should mark the irony of its use by the McCain/Palin campaign to cast themselves as renegades who play by their own rules but get results. The word originally applied to lost cattle, and thus would be a more apt characterization of Republican voters than of their nominees.

And I have another article floating around out there that looks like it won’t be posted before the election, and when it does, it probably won’t look much like the version I wrote anyway. I’ll probably post my version sometime — maybe in four years, when there’s another presidential election — but suffice it to say it was about fictitious commanders-in-chief we wish we could elect into office. One category in which I originally intended to evaluate them was their oratory quality. Obviously, with no less a writer than Aaron Sorkin standing behind him, mouthing his words, The West Wing‘s Jed Bartlet is the runaway winner in this field, but Thomas Whitmore gets high marks for his rousing call to action in Independence Day, despite its certain Green Eggs and Ham quality; I can’t listen to him say “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!” without thinking that his next lines are going to be “We will fight them in a boat! We will fight them with a goat!”

There was a time when eloquence was a hallmark of a great president. Right now, the United States has a lousy one, and one notorious for his butchery of the language. He probably wouldn’t be a better president if he were a better speaker. In fact, he might be worse. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder, famed for his oratory, always ended his speeches with the phrase Carthago delenda est — “Carthage must be destroyed.” He did this even if he hadn’t even been talking about Carthage in his speech; hawkish politicians today would admire his ability to stay relentlessly on message. And soon enough, Carthage was nothing more than a pile of rubble.

Despite his well-chronicled malapropisms, George W. Bush misled the United States into reducing Iraq to rubble too, but people have woken up to the idea that it was generally a bad idea. It’s probably a good thing he wasn’t a better salesman — or rather, a more accomplished demagogue. The U.S. military might be in Iran or North Korea by now as well. As Bush himself said, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Now, I know he didn’t get that last part right, and I was pretty sure it was a Chinese saying as well. I’m not sure what Bush would say about fooling us three or four times, though I think he might at least privately say he was pretty pleased with himself for doing it.

But pretty words can be used for good as well, and the art of oratory deserves a resurrection. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in the middle of the Great Depression, he inspired a nation with the statement “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the current financial crisis, it might have been reassuring if Bush had been able to coin an inspiring phrase or two in his recent address to the nation.

It’s not that Bush has had a monopoly on bad English among the occupants of the Oval Office, of course. Here’s what the writer H.L. Mencken had to say about the speech of Warren G. Harding (who was also a pretty bad president), which he called Gamalielese. I’ve been saving this one for a while, and today seems like a good day to use it.

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm… of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that our leaders be able to speak and think clearly and well. That’s why it came as a surprise in the third presidential debate when John McCain attempted to deride Barack Obama for his “eloquence”. As I’ve said, in the worst way of looking at it, it seemed like a racist attempt to damn a black candidate with faint praise by calling him “articulate”, or something like it. But it also came off as pandering to anti-intellectualism, to the mediocre and proud of it. McCain was seemingly trying to paint Obama as a slick, snake-oil salesman in contrast to his own famed “straight talk”, which, in the cynical final phase of negative campaigning, has proven to be anything but. (Frankly, McCain’s Straight Talk Express tour bus always seemed a bit gimmicky anyway, a pale copy of the red-white-and-blue-painted Lex Express in which Lex Luger travelled the country after body-slamming the evil foreign sumo wrestler Yokozuna on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.)

But the greatest eloquence is straight talk. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was striking for its brevity, consisting of fewer than three hundred words delivered after a two-hour speech by the preceding speaker. And Obama’s closest historical antecedent, John F. Kennedy, spoke simply in his inaugural address when he challenged the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Looking toward a day when our leaders again inspire us by their example to be more than we are, when we no longer demand they be less than they might be, Obama speaks even more simply, but with no less eloquence: “Yes we can.”

Three little words. But they’re a good start.



One Response to “It’s all Gamalielese to me”

  1. 1 Candace

    Bravo!


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