LOST FOR WORDS: Politics and the English Language

Thursday, November 16, 2000

In 1946, George Orwell wrote a famous essay deploring the decline in the level of modern political discourse. Many would argue that in the following fifty years, the problem has only gotten worse. But why is this the case? Our politicians all have teams of professional speech writers and pollsters, working with focus group data and the latest research to figure out just what the public wants to hear. So why doesn't it work? Why does the political discourse of our modern politicians pale against those of our forefathers?

Recorded on Thursday, November 16, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Politics and the English Language. In 1946, George Orwell wrote a famous essay of that title, Politics and the English Language, deploring the decline in political rhetoric. Plenty would argue that in the more than fifty years since, political rhetoric has only gotten even worse. A few words by a politician in the nineteenth century, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Not bad. That is, of course, the first line of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln wrote the address himself. It's said he jotted on the back of an envelope on a train on the way to Gettysburg.

Modern, political rhetoric. Anything inspiring? Anything memorable? Not much but why? Why should modern political rhetoric be so bad? Our politicians today, after all, have teams of professional speechwriters and they work with pollsters who provide them with reams of data on the phrases that move the public. So why doesn't modern political rhetoric do just that and move us?

Joining me today, Andrew Ferguson, a Senior Editor at the Weekly Standard magazine and he is, himself, an acute judge of political rhetoric.

Title: Writers of the Lost Art

Peter Robinson: George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and the English Language, "In our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Orwell was writing in 1946. Still true today?

Andrew Ferguson: It's gotten worse, if anything, I would say.

Peter Robinson: Why? Why should political writing particularly be bad?

Andrew Ferguson: Well partly it's because we've had fifty years of public education reform that I think has lowered the general level of intelligence in the country. But politicians in the--but the art of politics has become more scientific, which is to say, that politicians now know what people want to hear in a way that they didn't before.

Peter Robinson: No polling, no focus groups.

Andrew Ferguson: Right. Focus groups, polling, a whole array of mechanisms that speechwriters and rhetoricians in politics can now employ to tweak language to the point that it is only what people want to hear and not what they don't want to hear, which creates a general effect of dumbing down, I think.

Peter Robinson: Let me read you a few passages and you tell me what you think of them. Lincoln sec--second inaugural address, "It's clear the Civil War is winding down. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." What grade do you give Father Abe, very well?

Andrew Ferguson: Well, of course, that--that is one of the great passages in--in American or English writing. I think Jacques Barzun(?) once said about Lincoln to explain his pec--peculiar kind of eloquence was that he was a lawyer who had memorized large chunks of the King James Bible. So he had a lawyer's--an old-time lawyer's gift for simplicity, straight-forwardness, directness, clearing away all the clutter but just enough familiarity with classical, beautiful, Elizabethan English to tweak it and raise it up one more level. So you have these two things intentioned. You always were clear about what Lincoln wanted to say. That was his great gift but it was also memorable because he was--had such a perfect ear for cadence and the sound of words.

Peter Robinson: Warren Gamaliel Harding, his inaugural address, now this is also--I choose them because they're both Republicans. No one can ac--accuse us of being partisan here and Harding is writing after the first World War even as Lincoln is speak--spoke as the Civil War is ending down. I quote Warren Gamaliel Harding's inaugural address. "We would not have an America living within and for herself alone but we would have her self-reliant, independent and ever nobler, stronger and richer. Believing in our higher standards, reared through constitutional liberty and maintained opportunity," I love that phrase although I don't know why, "maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights but pride in things wrought is no reflex of a completed task. Common welfare is the goal of our national endeavor. We want the cradle of American childhood rocked under conditions so wholesome and so hopeful that no blight may touch it in its development."

Andrew Ferguson: And if it weren't so funny, it would put you to sleep. I think that was the one thing he had going for him. Well there you see somebody who has the gift for ornateness but not the gift of clarity. He has maybe one-tenth of the gift that Lincoln had and his specialty though was the opposite of Lincoln's, which is obfuscation. He wants you not to understand what he's saying. You remember his--his great slogan was normalcy.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Andrew Ferguson: Now the word is, and still is, normality. Somebody said, where did you get this word normalcy which, of course, was the watchword of his--his entire administration and he said, "I think I read it in a book somewhere." So that tells you a lot about…

Peter Robinson: Onto the speeches of William Jefferson Clinton.

Title: The Wizard of Is

Peter Robinson: From Lincoln and Warren G. Harding to figures of our own time. "Now my fellow Americans, a vast new century lies before us." Got the President yet?

Andrew Ferguson: I'm getting it pretty fast.

Peter Robinson: "It will be a time more full of opportunity for people to live out their dreams than any in human history." You let me know when you've got him. "We have committed this night," he's just been reelected President, "to continuing our journey to doing the hard work that will build our bridge to the twenty-first century, to give the young people here and those all across America the America they deserve and their children and their children's children."

Andrew Ferguson: Right. Well that's--that is Bill Clinton and it is a perfectly Clintonian sentence in that it has about forty different things going on at once. And it is almost unparseable. You can't separate the elements into different things. Now this is a way that--that language actually can illuminate politics in an indirect sort of way. Clinton is very revealing in the unrevealingness of his language and his speeches, especially in his inaugural speeches like--like these. Because the sentences are so overstuffed, you get a sense of a guy who is striving to do a hundred things at once. You know, we've never had a president who has tried so hard to let us know how hard he is working. And that's all in--caught up in his language. At the same time, the minute you stop and you think, now what is really going on here, what is this paragraph telling us, where is it pointing us, you can't find it.

Peter Robinson: What--what about this notion the metaphor here, "the bridge to the twenty-first century," how would you grade that as presidential metaphors go?

Andrew Ferguson: Well I--it's not bad for this reason, again it had a political object. Remember it is a play on Bob Dole's acceptance speech in the 1996 convention in which he talked nostalgically about the America that is no more. And that he could be a bridge to that long gone distance America.

Peter Robinson: A bridge to the nineteenth century?

Andrew Ferguson: Yes, well that's--that became the joke. Now the interesting thing is that Dole's speech was actually beautifully written, extremely ornate and it was a disaster. It was one of the worst political addresses, one of the least effective political addresses of modern times, I think. It's right up there with the malaise speech of Jimmy Carter.

Peter Robinson: Precisely because why?

Andrew Ferguson: Precisely because it evoked the wrong thing. Now all--all words are doing--all politicians want to do with words now is evoke emotions. They're not really making arguments. What Dole was doing was evoking nostalgia. What people want out of a political campaign is what are you going to do for us? What is the future going to be like? And that's what Clinton understood.

Peter Robinson: Could you make an argument then, even with polling groups, even with speechwriters, would you argue that a close study of presidential prose reveals the character of the man, whether it wants it revealed or not?

Andrew Ferguson: Right. I think--I think that you--you know a lot about Harding from that impenetrable passage. You--you--it--it--he's a man of--he's pompous, he's pretentious, he's a man of almost all artifice and with a great sense of showmanship. I think that you can find out things about Clinton even though he may not want you to.

Peter Robinson: Here's--here's another--this is a little bit later in the same speech. He's been reelected president and he's speaking in front of the stateharse--statehouse in Arkansas. It's after midnight, exhilarating moment for him. Just one sentence, "Fifty years ago when I was born in a summer storm to a widowed mother, in a small town in the southwest part of our state, it was unimaginable that someone like me could have ever become president of the greatest country in human history."

Andrew Ferguson: It reminds me of the--the--the Snoopy line. Remember sitting on top of his doghouse, it was a dark and stormy night. Now I don't quite understand--when--when he made those--made that speech and said those lines, it was remarked upon throughout the journalism world and…

Peter Robinson: It get--it got picked up as the emotional keynote of the speech. It was played back over and over again the next morning and so forth on television.

Andrew Ferguson: It has this kind of iambic pentameter rhythm to it.

Peter Robinson: Ta ta ta ta ta da da.

Andrew Ferguson: The other thing I think that's most revealing about it is that Clinton is a politician of the age of self-exposure. It's impossible for Abraham Lincoln who had a much harder life than Bill Clinton, it's impossible to imagine him saying, I was born in a poor, dirt farm and with a--in a cabin that my pappy made for me. He bec--he was from an age where you didn't talk about these things. This isn't what you tried to expose about yourself. Clinton is now in an age of constant self-exposure, constant self-dramatization and a constant elevation of the self over all other considerations and this is…

Peter Robinson: From Bill Clinton, let's turn to George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Title: Jabber-wonky

Peter Robinson: I have here a charge to keep, George W. Bush's campaign book. It closes with an appendix that collects a number of his speeches. Now presumably since they chose the--he and the people who produced the book chose the speeches themselves, they think these are especially good. "Compassionate conservatism is neither soft nor fuzzy."

Andrew Ferguson: No, it's hard and clear as a diamond. Of course, it isn't. The--the point is it is soft and fuzzy. That's why it's selected. The interesting thing that you see in reading the prose that's attributed to George W. Bush, or that he may even write himself sometimes, is that the whole idea of literateness has gone by the board. Clinton, at least, writes in these--in sentences. They may be imparseable, they may be overstuffed. George Bush has now distill--George W. Bush has distilled the expression of political ideas such as they are down to catch phrases. Compassionate conservatism, idealistic pragmatism, a reformer with results. He says, if you may remember from, I believe, the last debate between him and Vice President Gore, and they asked him are you for affirmative action which, of course, is itself a kind of unit--euphemism for various public policies. He said, "No, I'm for affirmative outreach." And Gore stomped all over him, "Well what does affirmative outreach mean?" Now see what you've got there is an attempt to sidestep any kind of clarity, any kind of challenge that might be put to him…

Peter Robinson: To have it both ways.

Andrew Ferguson: …by--by manipulating the language, employing some elements of your opponent's language, affirmative action, change it to outreach. So that nobody is still quite clear what the heck you mean but it still has a--it--it--it is affirmative, it makes you appear that you're saying something and putting forward a concrete idea.

Peter Robinson: Albert Gore, Jr. This is an interview with Red Herring magazine. He's comparing politics with computers. I quote, "Just as you saw the progressive switch from central processing units to massively parallel supercomputing, our democratic system made it possible for the average citizen to participate in the decision-making of this nation by processing the decision-making directly relevant to him or her in an individual congressional district or state. Then in the process of biennial or quadrennial elections our process harvests the sum total of those decisions and uses it as a basis for guiding the nation." Excuse me, I mean no disrespect…

Andrew Ferguson: Oh yeah.

Peter Robinson: …but I hope you do.

Andrew Ferguson: Gore--now this is the twenty-first century version of Harding, I would argue. It's--it is--Gore has absorbed the classic techno-babble of the business class in America and is able to just turn it right around and spin it out for whatever kind of purpose he wants it to suit. If you look in that--I think that there are three sentences in what--in that part you just read, the word process or some variant exists…

Peter Robinson: Two, three, four, five. Five uses of the word process or processes.

[Talking at same time]

Andrew Ferguson: …or some variant of it and we're never sure what process means. Process is used, I think, in three different ways in that sentence. You don't know, does it mean to understand, to act upon, to absorb. There are all different kinds of possibilities for what process means. But it's a techno-babble word that is infinitely elastic and can be used as he uses it there, five different ways in three sentences. And, again, all he wants to do is evoke a feeling. He wants to evoke a feeling of admiration for his intellect, for the depth of his understanding of processes….

Peter Robinson: Next topic, the acceptance speeches of George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Title: The English Patients

Peter Robinson: Bush and Gore knew when they would be giving acceptance speeches. They had weeks to work on it. In fact, I--I went to the Philadelphia convention, the GOP Convention, and the day before he spoke, there was a--an article in all the newspapers, the press--the campaign had obviously leaked this, apparently because they thought it was admirable, that Bush himself had redrafted the speech twenty-nine times. Let me just give you--this may be the most memorable line. "This administration had its moment. They had their chance. They have not led. We will."

Andrew Ferguson: If you've got an ear for--for tenses and--and language, there's--it's not a--it's a--supposed to be a parallelism. But it doesn't work. And I think that most people watching this, again, were more affected by how he delivered it, the forceful, broad-shouldered way we put out this idea rather than the fact that, wait a minute, that doesn't work. It's not how the language is supposed to go.

Peter Robinson: You--you're making a grammatical--I was just--should have been they cannot lead, we will.

Andrew Ferguson: Right.

Peter Robinson: So okay.

Andrew Ferguson: Right. But again, that isn't the point. I mean, this just underscores my point that we are talking about something that is essentially sub-verbal. Now language is being used as a way of evoking emotions and responses rather than actually conveying ideas and trying to clarify…

Peter Robinson: So when you and I--when we started this discussion with the text from Lincoln, your natural instinct was actually to talk about the text, what he meant and the way he used words. But now here we are a century and four or five decades later and the words are so uninteresting that we immediately start looking for re--immediately start reading between the lines, what's his body language, what's the delivery?

Andrew Ferguson: I think that's exactly right. You know, there is a--there's a phrase about the great battles that take place in academic departments at universities that are incredibly vicious. And this--the--the--the cliché is well the--they're so vicious because the stakes are so low. Now that is--something like that is happening in American politics now and it's--it's certainly happened since Orwell's time. Orwell wrote at the dawn of the Cold War. Of course, he was one of the--one of the great Cold War--a great person who understood the stakes if the Cold War better than anyone. With that being gone and a generalized consensus having been arrived at in American politics over the last five or six years, sort of a mild centrism, you have a--Clintonism, if you will. Clinton has really understood the--the middle of American politics, which you've got a dramatic lowering of the stakes.

Peter Robinson: Since there's nothing…

Andrew Ferguson: There are not great issues and great issues evoke great language. The two great orators of this--presidential orators of this century were the ones who faced the most dramatic changes in their tenures and that's Roosevelt and Reagan. Roosevelt was one of the first to dramatically employ speechwriters and used them oh, you know, three or four at a time but he--but he also edited very well and he distilled these things down. And, again, the great issues called up in him great language. And I think that the same thing is true of Reagan.

Peter Robinson: Now let's turn back to Al Gore.

Title: Gore Text

Peter Robinson: Al Gore, his acceptance speech. "Getting cigarettes out of the hands of kids before they get hooked is a family value. We will honor hard work by raising the minimum wage so that work always pays more than welfare. We will honor families by expanding childcare. We will honor the ideal of equality by standing up for civil rights and defending affirmative action."

Andrew Ferguson: Gore is doing something very clever here. It's a little bit like the way Clinton was able to reverse the bridge metaphor and turn it back onto Dob--Bob Dole's detriment. As I say, George W. Bush uses chunks of language rather than actual sentences. And, of course, one is a--one's for the Republicans, the tried and true, and it's family values. Another one that he's been using this year is restoring honor and dignity to the White House. Well what Gore has done is, because in the present context of politics, those--those crazes are infinitely el--elastic as to what they mean, Gore understood this and flipped them back and said, okay you believe in family values. Well it's a family value to stand up to the tobacco companies, which you won't do, by the way. It is a matter of honor to raise the minimum wage, which you do not--decline to do, so on and so…

Peter Robinson: Is it important for him in a--in a strategic sense to reclaim those phrases for his side? That is to say, had the pollsters told him, the phrase family values, so resonates with Americans that we can't let George W. Bush own it. We have to reclaim it for our side.

Andrew Ferguson: Exactly. But the key word there is resonates. Because it's almost an empty phrase, it has nothing but resonance. It doesn't have content. So Gore, understanding this, could just fill it up with whatever content he wanted. And, in this case, he filled it up with a content of his own policies.

Peter Robinson: I want to come--come back to this notion of why it is--why it should be that we have descended from Abraham Lincoln to beyond Warren G. Harding to what we've got in Clinton and Gore and W. Orwell, his essay, Politics and the English Language, quote, "In our age, there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues." Is it somehow the case that as politics has invaded more and more aspects of our lives? Somehow the language has become overloaded?

Andrew Ferguson: Well I think that political language is called upon to describe all kinds of events that it wouldn't have before because of the--the sort of imperialism of politics. The way politics is now taken everything unto itself as an issue as, you know, raising your children didn't use to be a political issue. Now it is because of the involvement of mass media, the need for childcare. The--the constant regulation of the daily life makes daily life a matter of politics. So politics is now about everything, which also is another way of saying that it's almost about nothing because there is nothing that can't be political. And that's why you get politicians talking about every conceivable issue under the sun. I think if you look at the--the--the litany of what was addressed in those two…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Those convention speeches…

Andrew Ferguson: Convention speeches. There is very little about human life that is not somehow a political issue.

Peter Robinson: Orwell again, "The decadence of our language is probably curable." Is pol--can--can political language be turned around?

Andrew Ferguson: He's very--in--in his essay, he's--he's a little ambivalent about that. He's not sure and it sounds a little bit like wishful thinking when he says it. He says, the--the other very important sentence in--in that essay is that the slovenliness in our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts. Now he was right when he said that fifty some odd years ago but we have had fifty some odd years of foolish thoughts made possible by slovenly language. If it was possible to cure it then, I don't know that it's possible now. We've gone an awful…

Peter Robinson: Let me ask Andy about improving political rhetoric.

Title: The Last Word

Peter Robinson: We have to have politicians. Somebody's got to be president yet he lives in a time where there are few great issues, when the language has in some way been debased, when, as the leader of the country, he's going to be expected to address everything from childcare to education to the--the--the more traditional provinces of government, justice and--and defense. He has to address every aspect of American life. What advice do you give?

Andrew Ferguson: I suspect that what's going to have to happen for us to return to--kind of have a cleansing of the rhetoric will be some kind of let's hope not too terrible cataclysm in which a leader is demanded to speak plainly of some sort, the way Roosevelt did in World War II, the way Reagan did in his famous speech to British Parliament or in standing at the--at the Berlin Wall. Those were events that required a man to speak plainly.

Peter Robinson: I was in the Reagan White House for the Westminster address and I was involved in writing the Berlin Wall speech. I can tell you that large chunks of the staff did not think those events required the president to speak plainly. That is to say, they were edited and re-edited and it was only because in--in both those particular instances Reagan himself insisted on going forward. So it will also require somebody to buck the judgment of all the pollsters and spin meisters and focus group masters.

Andrew Ferguson: There are similar occasions with--with Roosevelt pushing aside fuzzy language and demanding that he be clear about what he wanted. You know, Roosevelt was also almost like Eisenhower was able to obscure things as much as he wanted but when he had to, he himself had the leadership qualities that were necessary to speak plainly and to speak directly to a issue as Reagan did. It does require--it--it isn't going to happen of its own. It's going to require somebody who number one, has the education to understand how to speak plainly and the sense of leadership and drama to know when…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: …would you advise a president who chose to speak plainly to continue to read the King James Bible, to continue to study up on Lincoln?

Andrew Ferguson: Well I expect it may be a little late to--to--to use the King James Bible for anyone but good writing is good writing whenever it happened. As long as it's the same language, I think we can all understand what is beautiful about Ecclesiastes in--in the King James Bible which is also referred to in Orwell's essay. I think as long as people speak English, they will be able to understand the simple cadences of Lincoln and what he meant to say.

Peter Robinson: Last question. We have not yet had the catastrophe that will call for as the demand for plain speaking. We are where we are now. What one piece of advice would you give to the new president to do the best he can with the language?

Andrew Ferguson: I would ask him to understand his own limits, to deny himself the kind of thing that we've seen in the--political language that we've been talking about here which is this sort of vast expansive understanding of politics. If you had a leader now--a president who said, you know what, I can't do X, Y and Z, I cannot make your schools better. I cannot make your schools clean. I cannot, by myself, do X, Y and Z. To deny himself that understanding of politics that is so expansive and dilutes language so much might begin to turn people's ear to look for clarity, to look for directness, to look for some kind of sense of honesty in how politicians speak. As long as politics is going to be understood to be all comprehensive, political language is going to be diluted and silly and often nonsensical as we see here.

Peter Robinson: Andy Ferguson, thank you very much.

Andrew Ferguson: Thank you for having me.

Peter Robinson: Andy Ferguson says one reason political rhetoric today is so insipid is that the issues are small. Nothing like the nation torn apart that Abraham Lincoln faced when he gave his Gettysburg Address. Well if a moment of national crisis is needed for great oratory, maybe we can all learn to put up with insipid. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

More from Uncommon Knowledge