"A decade after the American Revolution," writes Bill McKibben in Deep Economy, his superb new book about the importance of localism, "at the time of the first U.S. census, New York had 33,131 residents and Boston 18,320; such small communities had produced Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin at roughly the same time." That's a sobering thought at a time when, out of hundreds of millions of Americas, we chose a leader for whom the powers of pardon and commutation are best used not to show mercy to downtrodden convicts but to spare a political buddy, a short, well-earned spell in prison. Reflecting on such a sorry situation, our independence, on this 4th of July, may seem to be worth far too little.
This may be a somewhat eccentric view, but what I find especially galling about President Bush's early Kwanzaa present for Scooter "Buster" Libby is that he didn't even bother to go before the country, say on television, to defend his decision. Okay, this wasn't Gerald Ford pardoning President Nixon, but if Bush truly believed in the action he was taking, he might have paid us, the American people -- his bosses -- the courtesy of more than a brief statement. But then argumentation has never been this president's strong suit. Of all the declines that the Bush presidency exemplifies -- moral, intellectual, spiritual, even sartorial (Bush is a worse dresser than Clinton, and Laura is no better than Hillary) -- the most glaring is rhetorical.
Bush has been at his most persuasive when lying, or parroting trumped-up information. He gave decent agitprop after 9/11. And he blessed us with the term "axis of evil" -- his great gift to the Iranian mullahs looking to unify a restless populace with anti-American propaganda. But it would be hard to find an example of Bush going before the American people and making the case for a debatable proposition in terms that actually changed the debate. Kennedy went on television and radio to encourage Americans to spend their tax break, goosing the economy; Reagan's anti-Soviet posturing was well articulated and, after the Realpolitik of the Nixon/Ford era and the soft human-rights emphasis of the Carter years, was actually quite brave.
Of course, while Bush may be especially bad, we live in an era of poor public oratory. Clinton could work a room, but have we forgotten how long he dragged on? And can you quote a single line from just one of his speeches? Even a phrase? Father Bush was a mediocre orator on a good day. And before Reagan we had Carter, Ford, Nixon...
The country that our founders envisioned on July 4, 1776, was -- in the eyes of both democrats like Jefferson and aristocrats like Hamilton -- to be governed by men who put some premium on the public explication of ideas in well-crafted speeches. Those speeches would not necessarily be ornate or florid, mind you. Cicero, whom learned men of the time read, described three oratorical styles: plain, moderate, and grand. Each had its place, and few men could hope to be expert at all three. In fact, a great rhetorician of the founders' time, Thomas Sheridan, believed that the best oratory was without artifice, and we can see in his words a preference for the plainspoken, simple style of men like George W. Bush:
"When re reflect that the end of public speaking is persuasion...; and that in order to persuade others...it must first appear, that the person who attempts it is firmly persuaded of the truth of it himself; how can we suppose it possible that he should effect this, unless he delivers himself in the manner which is always used by persons who speak in earnest? How shall his words pass for the words of truth, when they bear not its stamp?... [The rule] by which all public speakers are to guide themselves is obvious and easy. Let each, in the first place, avoid all imitation of others; let him give up all pretensions to art, for it is certain that it is better to have none, than not enough.... Let him forget that he ever learned to read; at least, let him wholly forget his reading tones. Let him speak entirely from his feelings; and they will find him much truer signs to manifest themselves by, than he could find for them.... The chief end of all public speakers is to persuade; and in order to persuade, it is above all things necessary, that the speaker, should at least appear himself to believe, what he utters; but this can never be the case, where there are any evident marks of affectation or art."
One of the terrible legacies with which the Bush era leaves us is the notion, believed by far too many voters in the Bush v. Kerry contest, that elegant speech is inherently cynical while clumsy speech is honest and durable. Sheridan's point, of course, was that every man (we would add woman) should be himself on the podium, rather than putting on airs. But honesty, he meant, should be in more than style -- it should be in content. What good is a humble, down-to-earth presentation if the man affecting it can't be bothered to explain why he lets his political cronies out of jail? That's cynicism to the nth degree. When Bush speaks, he is Everyman. When he chooses not to speak, he's nothing but a future partner in the Carlyle Group.
For this Independence Day, let me end on a note of hope. So far, there's been more honest talk in this presidential race than in any of the last five. Giuliani is still pro-choice. I believe Edwards when he speaks about poverty. Ron Paul may get some traction yet. Romney is a shameless liar, but people seem to be noticing. As Jennifer Senior notes in a fine New York magazine piece, running for president militates against authenticity -- what used to work on whistle-stop campaigns fails egregiously in the YouTube age. But these candidates are doing a better-than-average job keeping their senses of self, just as Thomas Sheridan recommended. Perhaps, as we prepare to emerge from yet another American war built on bad intelligence that our leaders wanted and willed themselves to believe, truth, and speeches that embody it, will be the order of the day. At least for a little while.
It so happens that I am writing a book about oratory in America today. I'd like nothing more than for some of you to email me the name of a great American public speaker I may not have heard of. No presidential candidates, please. Surprise me. You can reach me at correspondence[at]markoppenheimer.com, and in the future I'll blog about some of the people you mention.
A happy Independence Day to you all.