by Stephen Cox | Posted March 25, 2014
It’s good to have heroes. One of mine is John Kerry.
My love is a selfish one: a column like this depends on buffoons like him. I was devastated when Al Gore retired from politics to maximize his “climate” business. Gore could always be depended on to say something delightfully absurd. Of course, he couldn’t give up the habit, any more than he could give up eating to excess, but after exiting politics, stage left, he no longer had such a range of opportunities to show how hard it is to make sense when you never reflect on anything you’re saying.
Fortunately for me, Barack Obama came along, towing Kerry behind him. When Kerry was just a rich guy squatting in the Senate (for 28 years!), nobody paid much attention to what he said. Nobody paid much attention when he was running for president, either, but some people assumed they had a duty to report on him. That stopped, until Obama anointed him as secretary of state. Since then, his life has been an unbroken sequence of crises and assumed crises. Syria. “Warming.” Crimea. And Kerry is not one to nurse a crisis in silence. Oh no. On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia. It’s only a nagging sense of fairness that keeps me from filling every column with Kerry-isms; I want to give other people their chance in the Special Olympics. But whether I use his material or not, Kerry gives me a sense of confidence. I know that even if everyone else reforms, even if Harry Reid finally seeks a connection between words and things and President Obama finally opens the books he was supposed to read in college, John Kerry will always be words in the bank for me, an inexhaustible supply of malaprop.
Lately we’ve been hearing so much from him that I can’t resist displaying a few of his gems. Take, for instance, this one. A news source recently informed us that “Secretary of State John Kerry said he has consulted with other world leaders, and ‘every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion’ of Crimea."
On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia.
One of the many bad things about Kerry’s statements is their petulance. He is always the little boy who’s miffed that the other little boys aren’t listening respectfully to him. He anticipates (rightly enough) that they don’t believe what he says. So he raises his voice. “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve been talking to world leaders! I have so!” Observe that according to him, he hasn’t just been hobnobbing with officials from here and there; he’s been consulting with other world leaders, as if he were a world leader, too, and all of them liked him and agreed with him. To the hilt. Every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt. Note the grammatical error (“one of them are”), the kind of error people make when they haven’t the faintest idea of how to analyze a sentence. Note the grandiose cliché (“go to the hilt”). Note the obvious lie: no “world leader,” not even Kerry, was ever prepared to “go to the hilt” over Crimea. Note the secondhandedness: I’ve been talking with them, and they are all agreed. Lastly, note the vagueness, so characteristic of Kerry’s bombast. “Isolate Russia” — meaning what? Even that wiggly little “with respect to” — a vaguer, yet more pompous, way of saying “about.”
Gosh, what a mess. Now try this, which is fully characteristic of our secretary of state and can certainly be attributed to him: “’(The Ukraine incursion) is a show of weakness,’ a senior administration official said. ‘They have lost the government they backed in Kiev, now they're resorting to the type of intervention that will severely distance them from the international community.’" Pretend you’re Russia. You’re annoyed by the overthrow of a friendly government in Ukraine, which you had been heavily subsidizing. But you realize how weak you are. So out of your weakness you seize the best part of Ukraine, the part you had always wanted, and there’s nothing that “world leaders” can do about it, because you’re so weak. Makes perfect sense, right? It seemed so sensible to President Obama that he was soon making the same diagnosis of Russia’s weakness; he reasserted it vigorously in his press conference at The Hague on March 25. Weakness, I assume, is the reason Putin controls the situation in Crimea, and Obama does not (the Obama who is down to 40% approval by voters in his own country). Putin is weak. But never fear. Russia will be horribly punished by its distance from the international community.
Pompous? Vague? Petulant? Empty? Yes. That’s the Kerry style.
Back to weakness. Kerry and his fellow perpetuators of the 1960s have long resorted to pseudo-psychological, deep-insight explanations of phenomena that other people explain quite directly, in accordance with the “surface” (i.e., obvious) evidence. Liberals of the ’60s generation apparently find it inconceivable that some people should lash out at homosexuals because they simply don’t like homosexuality. They know, these friends of aged pop psychology, that such people are actually afraid of homosexuals, or of their own homosexual tendencies, known only to far distant observers. They are, in fact, homophobes. In the same way, conservatives explain Putin and Putin’s Russia by evoking the specter of the playground bully, who will back down if you just stand up to him, because bullies are afraid of you. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a bully who was afraid of me; I’ve looked largely in vain for bullies who would consent to back down when people stood up to them. I’ll bet that’s your experience, too.
But what do you think of adults who treat other adults as children, coddling them, placating them, condescending to them, lecturing them about their psychological issues, and otherwise infantilizing them? Do you think these adults may be relating to others out of their own childish fears? Maybe that’s what Kerry was doing on March 18, when he intoned (he always intones): “Russia has an enormous historical connection to Ukraine. We know this, but that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union.”
That “enormous” sticks in my craw. An enormous connection? Is it a railroad coupling? A 20-ton anchor? I’m familiar with connections that are strong, intimate, lasting, firm . . . but enormous? That’s absurd — but Kerry has a way of emphasizing the absurd parts of his statements. The overwhelmingly absurd thing, though, is the parental attitude: “Listen, little boy, you can’t just take what you want because you want it.” Does he actually expect anyone to listen to stuff like this? Does he expect Putin to hang his head and shuffle his feet and say, “Ah, you’re right, Uncle John. I guess I’ll hafta give it back”? Does he expect Putin to be stunned by his grand psychological insight that he, Putin, didn’t take the Crimea because it’s a valuable piece of real estate and any adult could see that there wasn’t a chance in the world that anyone would successfully oppose the action; no, he took the Crimea because he was angry?
Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.
The anger that’s most visible is Kerry’s anger. When has he made a speech in which he wasn’t angry — angry with some foreign power, angry with global-warming skeptics, angry with anyone he suspected of not listening to him. And if you want to see weakness, look to the same source.
Oh, but there are still so many jewels to exhibit. One more example. This is a big one, because Kerry is always saying big, long, deep, important things — such as his remarks at the World Economic Forum (what is that, anyway?) on January 18. From this mass of vital importance I will select two paragraphs about whether, heaven forbid, the United States has become less of a buttinsky than it was before Kerry arrived on the scene:
I must say I am perplexed by claims that I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world, this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down. In fact, I want to make it clear today that nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception, and in some case, a driven narrative, appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence somewhere or we aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena. I think the only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement is the Air Force pilot who flies the Secretary of State’s plane.
Obviously, our engagement isn’t measured in frequent flier miles — though it would be pretty nice if I got a few, as a matter of fact — but it is really measured — and I think serious students of foreign policy understand this — it is measured by the breadth of our global commitments, their depth, especially our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront, and it is measured ultimately by the results that we are able to achieve.
Here’s a guy who’s a phony even when he’s “joking.” Frequent flier miles indeed — Kerry is married to the widow of an heir to one of the nation’s great fortunes. The funny thing is that he doesn’t expect us to know how rich he is, even after it became an important issue in his presidential campaign. Another mark of phoniness is that word “somehow,” appearing twice in one paragraph. This is the dismissive somehow that people — usually leftists — employ when they have the following problem rumbling around in their heads: “The idea I am rebutting is obviously true, and the only way I have of rebutting it is to express bafflement that anyone could harbor such a silly idea.”
Why did I say that it’s usually leftists who talk this way? Just the empirical evidence: listen, and you’ll hear. But why would it be leftists, any more than rightists? I’m not sure, but I think it’s because articulate leftists were often educated in pricey schools, schools where they weren’t taught how to listen to those strange little people who disagree with them, but they were taught how to sneer at them. Anyway, the dismissive or sneering somehow wasn’t invented by John Kerry. Distinguished preceding uses include
- The idea that somehow most people will be better off if we allow a few people to make all the money they can . . .
- The idea that somehow there are new oil resources, just waiting to be discovered . . .
- The idea that somehow guns can reduce crime . . .
- The idea that somehow there is mass starvation in the Soviet Union . . .
Let us return to what Kerry is trying to argue. He’s insisting that America is just as “engaged” with “the world” as it used to be, before he stumbled into office. The difficulty is that he wouldn’t be making this speech if he weren’t aware of the evidence that leads people to believe that America is not as “engaged,” and that the evidence is persuasive. I happen to believe that America is still far too “engaged,” but never mind: Kerry thinks the opposite, because he would like it to be more “engaged”: that’s why he’s talking. So he sneers at the very reason he’s giving his speech. You see what a double dealer he is. And notice: he thinks that nobody will detect his double dealing — or, again, he wouldn’t be giving this speech. You see how dumb he is.
One sign of a dumb person is the use of words like engaged, which practically everyone knows mean practically nothing. If you don’t know that, you’re either 17 years old, or you’re dumb. Kerry is considerably older than 17. Another sign of dumbness is childish metaphors such as “the arena,” an image popularized by Theodore Roosevelt (1910):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Someone who sees international relations as an “arena” of this kind should not be involved with international relations.
A third infallible sign that a speaker is just plain dumb is a reliance on the stuff that eighth-grade English teachers once called “flowery language,” and put red X’s through. (Good teachers still do that; the others are just too dumb.) By “flowery language” they mean “nothing but language.” What do you learn from the second paragraph I quoted from Kerry’s speech? You’re supposed to learn that the United States is stuck to the world like Krazy Glue. But Kerry can’t manage to say that, or anything like that. He can’t even manage to say, “The United States is still very interested in the world outside its borders; it will honor its promises to other nations, and it will get results.” Oh no. He needs “flowers,” otherwise known as clichés, which he plucks by the handful: serious students, global commitments, every corner of the world, choose to confront. Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.
And the whole thing is meaningless. Obviously, our commitments aren’t literally global; they don’t extend to every corner of the world. At least, I hope we have no commitment to Eritrea, Uruguay, or Wrangel Island. The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are not true, that are obviously untrue, that if taken seriously would lead any sensible listener to scorn and reject his speech.
I just used measure intentionally, so you could see what you had to do to figure it out. You had to stop and try to picture what it meant. You wondered whether it made sense to measure “phoniness” by a “fact.” Maybe you thought, ultimately, that it did make sense; maybe you didn’t. But consider Kerry’s use of measure. He wants you to believe that engagement must be measured by breadth and depth of commitments. That’s a puzzler. Picture that, will ya? Engagement must be measured by our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. Write that out in a simple sentence: “Our engagement must be measured by our commitments.” Is that saying the same thing twice, or is it saying nothing at all? Kerry’s sentences often provoke this question.
The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are obviously untrue.
Despite all that, Kerry somehow keeps coming out with astonishing assertions. There’s one at the end of the passage we’re examining. There he claims that “engagement” grows better, or realer, or something like that, as it grows more difficult — in Kerryese, “It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront.” So, the more difficult something is, the more you’re engaged with it? Physicists aren’t really engaged with their work unless they’re trying to invent a perpetual motion machine? Women aren’t really engaged with romance unless they’re seeking the most repulsive and abusive boyfriends? Well, they may be engaged, but not in any healthy way. Yet Kerry also claims that the ultimate measure of “engagement” is the “results” it achieves. This seems reasonable, until you take maybe a second to reflect on it. Then you see that the crook who succeeds in getting you to purchase a stolen car is much more engaged with you than the friend who fails to sell you on giving up smoking. Not only are Kerry’s ideas expressed in the least attractive and least accessible way, but they aren’t even true. Any of them.
All right, here’s the scary thing: you can spot a Kerry sentence a mile off. You can’t mistake it for anybody else’s sentence. He’s like Shakespeare, in that way. And the sentences he speaks spontaneously are very close to the sentences he reads from a script. You see the horrifying truth: this guy actually writes his own speeches. I can’t say worse.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. Newly published is Culture and Liberty, a selection of works by Isabel Paterson.
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