Lately we have been hearing that Barak Obama lacks substance. Sure, he is a great speaker. He inspires people and makes then believe. But what has he done? The message is that words are nice, but what really counts is what you do. Words are fluff; actions have substance. McCain and Clinton may not speak as well as Obama but they understand the world and can get things done or so they tell us. Pretty speeches won't get us anywhere. Even Obama seems to have bought into this as he is trying to stress the things he has done and can do. He even overtly agreed that acts are more important than words. He is "dialing it back" in his speeches.
But is this assumption true? It sounds sensible but let's look at the evidence. Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence more than 200 years ago. Its words still resonate and inspire. As far as I know, he did not physically fight in the Revolutionary War or "act" in any way to win it. But where would we be without the Declaration? An even more extreme example is Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." Paine did not act at all. He died a penniless drunkard and was not a particularly likable person. But his pamphlet inspired our soldiers and revolutionaries. What is one of the most powerful memories of the Civil War? The Gettysburg Address. A bunch of words. These words resonate through history as much as the epic battle they commemorate. Teddy Roosevelt, one of our most action-oriented presidents saw the presidency as a "bully pulpit." Franklin Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" kept our country together through some of its most difficult times. And the soaring rhetoric of Winston Churchill is as responsible for winning the war as his generals' tactics.
The Good Book is a bunch of words. Our civilization is based on these words and hundreds of millions of people if not billions live their lives based on them. What action is more important than these words? Creation began with words ("Let there be light!"), action followed ("And there was light"). The Ten Commandments are words. The Pharaoh of Egypt with all of his soldiers and chariots could not stand against these words. Who was more powerful, the kingdoms of the ancient world or a bunch of nomads wandering in the desert with their words? The pagan rulers of the ancient world and their armies ultimately lost to these words. They are gone; the words are just as powerful today as they were then. The Sermon on the Mount is words. The rulers of Rome were men of action. What was ultimately more important and powerful, the words spoken by an itinerant, unarmed preacher, or the legions of Rome? Rome and its empire are gone; the words spoken two thousand years ago are still here and still powerful. Which is more important? Which has more substance?
And, in case you still doubt that words are more important than actions, let me close with the beginning of one of our great books (a bunch of words), the Gospel of John. "In the Beginning was the Word."
Why is this so? Shouldn't action take precedence over words? The answer lies in the emotional impact. Direct action that affects us individually and powerfully is more effective than words. A punch in the mouth is more effective than the threat of one. Sticks and stones... However an abstract action like the passage of a bill or an executive order, no matter how important is not as powerful as the words that accompany them. The words reach us directly and emotionally; the bill or order reaches us indirectly and abstractly.