O Tempora! O Bama!

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For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




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Comments

Barbara Bohan

Recently, the "paranoid" and "cold, haughty" styles have become President Obama's default modes of rhetoric. I strongly agree that neither is amusing or endearing.

Tor

I love the headline. I am not going to directly steal it.

Jim Williams

I have long been baffled by the assertions that Obama is a great and inspiring speaker. Perhaps some people are inspired by his combination of rehashed platitudes and sneering condescension, but it just doesn't work for me.

Ross Levatter

Stephen Cox writing on language is always a hoot to read, and here we have the additional pleasure of seeing Obama skewered.

But is it really so horrid, Stephen, to talk of "harnessing new ideas"? Isn't that just an elision for harnessing the power of a new idea? And we often talk about new ideas having power, and about harnessing power, as when we talk of a car's horse-power. These don't strike me as bizarre metaphors.

When ideas are applied to create new devices, such as when Steve Jobs' idea of a magical device you could hold in your hands and do or create anything your imagination came up with, it did not seem inappropriate to speak of Jobs as harnessing a new idea in the form of an iPad.

So, and I know I'll hate myself in the morning for saying this, maybe you're being a little too hard on the President, Stephen. :-)

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