Dishonorable Mentions

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Last month, this column gave out awards for the ten greatest linguistic monstrosities of 2011. It was not required that the winners be born in that year — only that they had been prominently, glossily, and grossly overused in it.

I thought I'd made my decisions wisely, but evidently I was wrong. Word Watch has an intelligent and discerning audience, and there was a great outcry against my choices.

No one asserted that the ten expressions were innocent and charming victims of Cox's vindictive spleen. After all, who could defend “dead on arrival” (used for every piece of legislation one doesn’t like), “icon” (used for everything except religious pictures), or “epic” (used for everything whatever)? The objection in each case was to my omission of other candidates, expressions just as worthy of hatred and fear as the ones I mentioned.

There was merit — much merit — in the protests I received. It is therefore my duty, and my pleasure, to publicize some of the strongest additional candidates for inclusion among the Most Gruesome Expressions of the Year Just Past. Again, there’s no requirement that a contender should have originated in 2011. The distinguishing characteristic is disgusting overuse.

I’ll arrange this new set of linguistic freaks under four headings.

1. The labor theory of value

When the January Word Watch was published, an anonymous correspondent wrote immediately to ask, “What about the awful term ‘worker,’ which apparently we've all now become?” To which a reader named Rusty replied, “I would add 'working families' to the list.”

They're both right. The labor theory of value continues to spawn all kinds of smarmy words. The current use of “worker” (which I'm always tempted to pronounce as "woikuh," in the old Daily Woikuh style) is one of the most insidious items in our political vocabulary. It has no meaning of its own; it’s just a code for other things. Stupid other things.

Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn.

My anonymous reader was getting at that when he noticed that we are all "workers" now. Yet because the word is used only to signify good things, certain parties are necessarily, though illogically, excluded. When President Obama uses the term, he plainly doesn’t mean “everyone who works.” He doesn’t mean people who work on “Wall Street” (however many thousands of those people he also has working in his own administration). He doesn’t mean employers. He doesn’t mean doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. He means something like “manual or subordinate laborers.” He means the people whom he frequently pictures as “living from paycheck to paycheck.”

I don't know any Indian chiefs who live from paycheck to paycheck, but maybe that's because I don't know any Indian chiefs. I do know plenty of doctors and lawyers who live that way, just as I know plenty of people who work with their hands but have no problem meeting their mortgages. So Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn. Let me tell you, my doctor does a lot of work when he has to deal with me.

The core reference of this coded language of work is “union labor.” That type of labor is, understandably, a central concern of Obama's administration, since unions were crucial to making him president. Yet from the intellectual point of view (and Obama is supposed to be an intellectual), it’s too bad that he and his friends want to wipe the literal meaning of "work" completely off the map. If the unionized denizens of the DMV do “work,” and lifesaving medicos do not, then what happens to the concept of, well, work? What happens to "effort expended for a productive purpose"? It vanishes, that’s what.

I haven’t mentioned the odor of self-righteousness that now attaches to “worker,” the word. All so-called workers, such as our friends at the DMV, are assumed to be more deserving, more useful — in short, better than everyone else. This is simply, directly, and stupidly offensive. It’s worse when the reference spreads to people who don’t even pretend to work, as in “working families.” Now the two-year-old child of the DMV desk-holder is included among the Woikuhs of duh Woiurld, and the medical scientist remains in the outer darkness.

2. The awesomeness of awesomeness

Willard Brickey wrote to say, “Maybe you've mentioned it before, but ‘awesome’ is a word abused so often that it's practically impossible to use it in its original, legitimate sense.”

True. The current plague of “awesome” resulted from some mutation in the brains of skateboarders and other such people. For more than two decades, “awesome” has been employed as a universal adjective, the anointed successor to such words as “cool” and “incredible.” At first it was boards, waves, and dudes that were awesome; but soon it was everything — caps, tatts, high ‘n’ tights — that was in any way associated with maleness. (“Awesome” is a male-coded word.)

This disease had ugly precedents at the other end of the social spectrum from gamers and thrashers. Historically, “awesome” has been most strongly associated with religion. But at some point in the 20th century, people, even religious people, stopped being interested in traditional religious language. They were no longer sure what “awe” might mean, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the word itself must have some power, since it appeared in prayers and stuff like that, but they were confused by the “some” that often got attached to it. Unwilling to resort to a dictionary, they assumed that “awesome,” the adjective, was some kind of general intensifier that could be used on anything.

Here’s an example — with a fairly long preamble.

Virtually all Christian songs that are widely known today were introduced before the mid-twentieth century. One reason is that around that time — the time when the Baby Boom first went to school — many otherwise verbal people stopped being interested in traditional literary language. They suddenly didn’t know what “hither” meant, let alone “thither” — or “sustain,” “solace,” “deplore,” or “chide.” They stopped having enough language to write enduring songs. They stopped understanding songs that had been universally popular only a few years before. They couldn’t understand what the hymn writer meant when he said, in the moving last stanza of a song that used to be standard in Christian congregations:

God be with you till we meet again:
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.

What, they wondered, could "smite" possibly mean? And how does a banner "float"?

So songs like that began to vanish.

“Amazing Grace” is a Christian song that everyone still “knows.” It was written in the 18th century and popularized by its use in a movie (The Onion Field) in 1979. Despite its present popularity, which is generally based on a serious misunderstanding of its meaning, no one could write that kind of song today. It has too many of those, like, weird old expressions in it. It even refers to “snares.”

The only other universally recognized Christian song that was popularized after the mid-20th century is “How Great Thou Art.” To my ears, this song is the pale, bewildered ghost of a great tradition. One proof is that it begins in this way:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .
Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee.
How great thou art! How great thou art!

When I hear those lines, my own soul says, “How dumb this is! How dumb this is!” Awesome doesn’t belong in there. The singer means that God is “awesome.” Fine. But what he says is that his own “wonder” is “awesome.” Which is dumb.

But why the hell shouldn’t he say it? Can’t awesome be applied to everything?

O Lord my God, it can be. But when you hear that anything-goes awesome, you are hearing the “ave atque vale” of our linguistic heritage.

If you don’t know what “ave atque vale” means, go look it up. That will be an awesome experience for you.

Snobbish? I don’t care. Would you rather know something, or not know it?

3. We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was

Let’s proceed from the falsely sublime to the truly ridiculous. One reader insisted that I must have been paid not to mention the scandalous misuse of “General” and other honorifics. I wasn’t, unfortunately — but here’s what she meant.

The Attorney General of the United States is not a military officer. Neither is the Surgeon General of the United States. They are not generals. They never lead troops into battle. They are attorneys or surgeons ingeneral service to the nation. Yet when Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, came before Congress to testify about his role in the gunrunning operation known as Fast and Furious, he was repeatedly asked such questions as, “You’re not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it wasn’t your responsibility to have known about this problem?” The questioning congressmen didn’t understand what Holder’s title meant — any more than congressmen, commentators, and other potentates understand that the Surgeon General should not be addressed as General or appear in the Ruritarian, supposedly military, uniforms in which, beginning with the Reagan administration, they have obtruded themselves on the public attention.

Why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker?

Worries about the Attorney General turned my reader’s attention to worries about political titles ingeneral, and their persistence in particular. “When,” she wondered, “do people stop being this or that which they have been in the past?”

Good question. Receiving it, I had fond memories of R.W. Bradford, founder of Liberty, who often lodged the same complaint.

At the House committee hearing called to investigate Jon Corzine’s behavior as head of the IMF investment outfit, Corzine revealed that he had no idea what had become of $1.2 billion invested with him. That was startling enough; almost as startling to me was the fact that Corzine sat behind a committee-provided sign that read, in big black letters, “The Honorable Jon S. Corzine.” Corzine is “honorable” because he used to be a senator and a state governor. Used to be (thank God).

The poet Wordsworth wrote insightfully of spiritual states that do not cease — that “having been, must ever be.” Apparently it’s the same with Corzine’s “honor.” No matter what happens, he keeps his titles, and even his moral additives, forever. He even keeps his middle initial, as if there were some other Jon Corzine, equally involved in both scandals and congressional investigations, who might otherwise be confused with him.

For God’s sake, isn’t there any statute of limitations for these political functionaries? When Gertrude Smith retires from the DMV, even she (one of the “woiking class”) isn’t addressed as Counter Clerk Smith for the rest of her life. So why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker? Is he likely to be mistaken for some other Gingrich, currently running for president?

4. How to grow your identity

So far I’ve considered individual readers’ additions to my limited list of linguistic follies. Two expressions, however, produced a general chorus of “Why didn’t you mention this?”

The first is “grow,” as in “grow the economy.” A number of readers pointed out that “the economy is not a plant.” Others observed that “if the politicians, Democrat or Republican, keep saying, over and over, that ‘we need to grow the economy,’” they, my readers, will be forced to uproot their party affiliations, chop down their vote-bearing trees, and send all political literature to the compost heap.

Those are cogent remarks. “Grow,” the organic metaphor, is absurd when it’s applied to such palpably inorganic things as “the economy,” “my bank account,” “your sales campaign,” or “your marital happiness and engagement.” (My spam box is full of offers to “grow” that last entity.) But I have something more against “grow.”

Think of the explanations it replaces. Precisely who is to grow the economy? President Obama? President Romney? The man in the moon?

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were known as “the baker and the baker’s wife,” on the assumption that they provided bread for the people of France. Now our president is pictured as the chief grower of our economic destinies. It’s hard to say which expression is sillier.

And precisely what is to be grown? Explain that to me. Investments? OK, how? How are they grown? Or are revenues the crop? Or jobs? What’s the seed? What are the tools? But don’t worry; we need to elect someone who can grow the economy.

So much for grow. The second type of “why didn’t you mention this?” referred to those demon twins, the political pronouns “we” and “our” — monsters now appearing everywhere in the discourse of presidential candidates.

Originally the political function of these words was to deflect personal responsibility, as in the president’s frequent comments about how “we, uh, we never, uh, said that this process of, uh, economic healing wouldn’t be, uh, hard or that it, uh, wouldn’t take a, uh, uh, long time to, uh, provide what we, uh, want to provide.”

The deflection function persists. But for Obama’s Republican opponents, “we” and “our” have an aggrandizement function also. The pronouns are the Republican candidates’ way of inflating their magnitude, of multiplying their insignificant personalities.

“From the start of our campaign our intention has always been to,” oh, whatever. How many times have you heard that one? More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away. It’s just too weird when somebody checks into a hotel as “Newt Gingrich” (singular) but tells everyone outside that he’s actually a whole mob of candidates.

Michele Bachmann, whose continued presence “on the campaign trail” will be missed by five or six of her “fellow Americans,” has always had difficulty fitting the start of her sentences to the ends thereof. So naturally, she told Fox News that “no other candidate [singular] is doing a 99-county tour of Iowa, but we [plural] are.” That would have been easy, if there had been plural Bachmanns, but I’m happy to say there weren’t.

Bachmann was such an irresistibly representative American illiterate that I number myself among the few who will miss her (or them). She provided constant instruction in how the English language should not be used. She was even more helpful in this regard than Sarah Palin. You could always trust Bachmann to say something pompous and foolish.

More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away.

By “illiterate,” incidentally, I don’t mean “folksy” or “colloquial.” I wish that political candidates would speak good colloquial English, rather than the speech-from-the-throne lingo they prefer. Unfortunately, they have nothing compelling or colorful to say in any dialect. The fact that they resort for emphasis to the official “we” demonstrates just how far down the linguistic totem pole they are.

On January 19, Gingrich reported, “Callista [his wife] and I were really honored today when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed us.” If you want ickiness, this is almost as good as “working families.” It seems that when I’m voting for a candidate, I’m also endorsing the candidate’s spouse. And maybe the kids and the dog. Today, all candidates are Kennedys.

Even Donald Trump, who brought ego to the Republican Party and now brings ego to the so-called independents, has started talking like this. Asked, before the Iowa caucus, whether he was going to support Mitt Romney, if Romney won, Trump repeatedly resorted to the plural pronoun: “We’re watching, to see what develops.” Someone of my age can’t help remembering the

two-headed dragon once impersonated by Fred and Ethel Mertz in the old I Love Lucy show. The monster wandered across the television scenery, eyes rolling, tail switching, pretending to growl. But it was still Fred and Ethel Mertz. And that’s one more character than Donald Trump can manage to impersonate.

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Mittimal Damage

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After being badgered incessantly by Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, “vulture capitalist” Romney finally released his tax filings. We finally got to see what dirt was being covered up in his returns.

And the dirt was — nothing!

The press sifted through the 500 plus pages of Romney’s 2010 filing (and his projected filing for 2011), desperately looking for something to hit him with, and Romney came out totally clean. The media mission was to find new material that their guy Obama could use to bash Romney, but the mission was an abject failure.

True, the released material shows Romney to be a very rich man. But the filings only confirm what anybody could have found by Google-searching the dude and reading his Wiki entry, to wit, that he is worth around a quarter of a billion bucks. Listen, don’t get me wrong: I would love to have that kind of scratch. But it doesn’t put the man on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list — he’s nowhere as wealthy as such media-darling leftist billionaires as Warren Buffett and George Soros.

Progressives are cheap when it comes to spending their own money to help others. They are generous only with other people’s money.

To be precise, in 2010 Romney earned $21.7 million, of which $12.6 million was capital gains, $3.3 million taxable interest, $4.9 million dividend income, and the remaining million or so money coming from various business gains, refunds, and speaking fees. Romney gave a whopping $3 million to charity — about 14% of his income.

Taxes on cap gains, dividends, and interest rates are a flat 15%, and charitable donations are quite legally deductible — which explains why he “only” paid about $3 million in taxes (about a 14% effective tax rate).

In short, he legitimately minimized his taxes, and paid no more than he was legally required to. This puts him in the same boat as the rest of us, Obama and Biden (and Buffett and Soros) included. I confess that I try to minimize my taxes legally. I never — repeat, never — pay more than the law requires, and I have nowhere near Romney’s tax burden.

The mainstream media was reduced to nitpicking. It turns out, for example, that Romney — whose portfolio is in a blind trust, please note, so invests without his knowledge or control — had small investments in Swiss and Cayman Island accounts. All quite legal if declared to the government — and it was.

Of his generous charitable giving, half of it went to the Mormon church, and the rest to a variety of charities, including one for researching MS (an ailment that afflicts his wife).

His projected 2011 filing, which he has promised to release in April when it is filed, shows similar income, charitable outlays, and tax rate.

There is no doubt that Obama will use as much of this as he can to hammer Romney in the fall, assuming that Romney is the Republican nominee, which I regard as virtually certain. But there is little ammo here.

Indeed, Romney’s lavish charitable giving actually underscores Obama’s cheapness when it comes to charitable giving. Compare the nearly 14% of his income ($3,000,000) that Romney gave, to what the Obamas did: from 2000 through 2004, they gave about 1% to charity (or less than $11,000), and in 2007 they gave 5.7% (or about $240,000). Even more tight-fisted was VP Joe Biden, who averaged a pathetic 0.3% (a truly risible $349) in annual charitable giving in the decade before he became vice president, and not much more since. Last year, Biden gave 1.4% ($5,300) to charity. Truly nothing compared to Romney.

The national average for giving is about 5%.

This illustrates the thesis of Arthur Brook’s estimable Who Really Cares?, a book I reviewed for these pages some time back (March 2009, 43–6): the progressives are cheap when it comes to spending their own money to help others. They are generous only with other people’s money.

Even the 14% tax rate that Romney enjoys is hard to use against him. Remember, the John Kerry household paid 13%, and the Democrats had no problem voting for him as their nominee. And for Obama to push the capital gains and dividend rates back up is for him to risk a major downturn on the stock market, as well as in the lavish support he is getting from his billionaire buddies. That could cost him the election.

In the end, after relentless attacks by Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, all that has been revealed about Romney is that he legally and ethically earned a large amount of money, paid his taxes, and is a devout member of his church. In short, what is known now is what everybody knew all along.

Given that Obama has few accomplishments he can run on, we can also expect from him what we knew all along. His likely $2 billion reelection campaign (the $1 billion his campaign will have to spend, and the $1 billion that will be spent by groups that support him) will be entirely negative. And it will be as repetitive as it will be negative. It will simply repeat that Romney is rich, rich, rich! And he is white, white, white! And he is Mormon, Mormon, Mormon!

I am weary already.




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Do the Republicans Deserve to Lose?

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Liberty readers presumably want to defeat President Obama and the Democrats. Apart from his beliefs, policies, and associates, Obama is a decent man. His challenger, to have a chance of winning, should be one also. Moreover, he should not have so much in his background requiring excuses and apologies — no matter how valid — as to preempt the voters’ limited attention from policy issues.

No one has a right to the nomination, or to complain about unfairness if he doesn’t get it. Electability is a reasonable requirement even for the most decent person.

Gingrich’s excuses and apologies are not even good ones, in my view, even though they may work in campaigning. His undistinguished record at West Georgia College, his questionable ethics and other reasons for being forced out of the speakership and even out of Congress, his half-truths, his “grandiosity” (so identified by Rick Santorum), and his marital infidelities all testify to his character. His claim to have changed his character and to have received or at least to have asked for God’s forgiveness strikes me as disgusting hypocrisy.

In a column in the Opelika-Auburn News of January 21, the paper’s publisher aptly calls Gingrich “an arrogant, hypocritical, corrupt blowhard” who “is disliked most fervently by those people who know him best. . . .” In my word, he is a slimy character.

Mitt Romney seems competent; and if he commits himself to so-called conservative policies, however belatedly, I suppose that he will faithfully pursue them. He could quite probably justify how he made his money and why he paid low taxes; but his doing so, however soundly, will leave a residue of doubt with many voters and will divert time and attention from real issues. He lacks charisma. Again, it is not unfair to expect electability of a candidate.

Rick Santorum appears to be a decent person, but he devotes too much attention to pushing socially conservative views rather than to real economic and fiscal problems. Ron Paul is sincere and passionate; but the voting public is not ready for consistent libertarianism, perhaps especially not on foreign policy. Gary Johnson would have been a more persuasive candidate inclined toward libertarianism. In comparison with the now remaining four aspirants, Jon Huntsman appealed to me.

It is hackneyed but relevant to recognize that the personal characteristics required of a successful campaigner are quite different from those of a high government official. What could be done? The Founding Fathers, well versed in history, had foresight. The Constitution, Article II, Section 1, says that each state shall appoint presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct. . . .” The legislatures might constitutionally specify the appointment of electors otherwise than by statewide direct popular vote, conceivably even by lot (although better ideas may turn up). And the electors from all the states might be encouraged to meet and discuss candidates before casting their votes. Of course, no such reform is in the cards.

As things now stand, I am afraid that Bret Stephens is right in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece of January 24: “The GOP Deserves to Lose.” I’d appreciate being shown why my pessimism is mistaken.




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Terminal Ennui

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“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Thus Shakespeare, in Sonnet 18. No, Shakespeare answers; that comparison won’t do: “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

The poet’s complaint is that sometimes he just can’t think of a sufficient metaphor. Of course, his complaint is merely a pretence, merely a way of starting a poem. Shakespeare could never be at a loss for imagery.

Well, I can be. Especially now.

What a season we live in! Its dullness exceeds all normal human powers of simile and metaphor.

A ship runs into a sandbar and takes on water. A handful of its 4,000 passengers and crew perish. So dull are our times that this event, the “sinking” of the Costa Concordia, is heralded throughout the world as a “Titanic-like tragedy.” But look, the ship didn’t even sink. It’s there right now, more than halfway out of the water. If it wasn’t for the Italian coast guard, picnickers could be frolicking there today. To what shall we compare the public reaction to this non-event?

The big political news in California is that our Democratic governor wants to raise taxes. What a surprise! Also that he and the Democratic leadership of the state House and Senate want to keep financing a 400-mile “high-speed” rail project that wouldn’t even be high-speed, at a cost only five times as great as that authorized by voters when they foolishly, but predictably, authorized it, several moons ago. Shall we compare this to a summer’s day? Is it worthwhile even to hunt for metaphors?

Now turn and survey the Republican primary context. How many “debates” have these people had? 15? 18? 95? And it’s barely election year. Shall I compare this to a winter’s sludge? And look at the candidates. Look at their “issues.” Exempting Ron Paul, who actually has radical things to say (although, ahem, you and I have heard them many times before, because we are libertarians), what the hell do these people have to say that’s worth saying at the length they’ve already taken? Shall we compare them to snails, bewitched by their progress across a 10-foot sidewalk? To mice steadily eating their breadloaf house? To a nest of blind mole rats? To a wall from which all brickbats bounce?

But you see how far one has to reach for imagery. It’s hopeless, truly hopeless. I won’t even try finding metaphors and similes for the current president. Now there is one dull fellow. Imagine a book entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama. You see my point.

In Richard III, someone mentions “the winter of our discontent.” Shakespeare, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Then you could write about the ice age of our boredom.




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Ron Paul at the Iowa Marker

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In Iowa, Ron Paul came in third. Four years earlier, he had come in fifth, with 10% of the party vote. Now he has more than doubled his support, to 21.5%. His new total suggests he has established libertarians as a significant faction within the Republican Party.

This is no certain thing. We will know when Paul retires, and the faction is led by someone else, perhaps his son. In either case, it is not a majority faction, and Paul is not going to be nominated.

Every time I write this, some Paul supporter rises in challenge: “Who gave you a crystal ball?” (My momma did.) When they are done hollering at me, they can holler at Intrade. As I write, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, the gamblers on the news-prediction web page put odds of Paul’s nomination at between 2 and 2.4%, which is lower than the odds for Jon Huntsman.

In December 2011, Paul’s odds peaked at above 9%, about at the level he peaked four years earlier, in December 2007, regarding the nomination in 2008. After the Iowa caucuses then, and the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s quote fell to 1%. He is likely on the same trajectory now.

What has happened? Paul has been attacked. This was entirely predictable, and it is not just because the mainstream media is against him, though it is. The frontrunner is always attacked.

For months the national press had ignored Paul, treating him, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, like “an eccentric uncle.” Then it changed. In the last half of December anti-Paul columns appeared by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (Dec. 16), James Kirchick in the New Republic (Dec. 22), Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), former New York mayor Ed Koch on NewsMax.com (Dec. 29), Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (Dec. 30), and the editorial board of the New York Times (Dec. 27).

“Who gave you a crystal ball?” My momma did.

Much of this was a regurgitation of the story about the anti-black and anti-gay tone in Paul’s newsletters of the early 1990s. Kirchick had used these to accuse Paul of “hate” in The New Republic in January 2008, and the press corps knew about them. Wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason, Dec. 25, 2011: “It seems no one wanted to bring them up again until Paul gained so much traction that ignoring them would have been a serious dereliction of duty.”

For some it seemed that way. Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head. They had dumped on Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Cain. They had just been trashing Newt. Then, in mid-December, Paul was leading in the Iowa polls, with 23–28% among a field of seven, and he still had a clean shirt.

Then came Kirchick, fanning the “hate” issue again; many Paul supporters, seeing their man as the least hateful of the lot, were inclined to dismiss it as more mainstream media bias. Some of it was, but in a presidential race a candidate cannot ignore charges like this.

And Kirchick had a new take on it. His piece was titled, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” In it, he said Paul’s supporters “don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia,” etc. The problem with libertarians, he said, is that they shut these considerations from their minds, letting the free market trump “all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity.”

If they cared about these things, Kirchick argued, libertarians would have been supporting the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who “can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage.”

The public didn’t know Johnson. They knew Paul. He had run twice before. He had written bestselling books. He had built up a base of fans. He had mailing lists of donors for his “money bombs,” and an organization that in Iowa was stronger than any other Republican’s. He had a US senator to campaign for him: his son.

Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head.

He also has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the Des Moines Register poll found that voters ranked Paul as the least ego-driven candidate. Andrew Sullivan writes of Paul’s “decency.” Dalmia writes of his “remarkable ability to generate goodwill.” Paul is more radical than Johnson. This makes him easier to attack, but also more appealing to the hardcore.

 The Republican leadership couldn’t stand either Johnson or Paul. For Paul, it didn’t matter; he had built his own party. Johnson hadn’t. At the end of 2011 he was so sore at the Republican leadership that he joined the Libertarian Party.

Back to Kirchick: he exaggerates, but he has a point. Paul’s fans liked him so much they were willing to overlook a bad thing on his record.

How bad was it? To Kirchick, as with many liberals, racism is the most important issue there is. If you’re touched by it, you’re dead. If you care about it, but you care about other things more, that’s not good enough. You’re still dead. Any denials are assumed to be false and (especially if they are against you anyway) any mea culpa from you istoo small.

The real issue is not what Paul was then. It is what he is now. You have to judge.

One commentator who tried to think this through is Andrew Sullivan. He had supported Paul for the Republican nomination, but said he would vote for Obama in November. He liked Paul’s stand on foreign war and executive power. To Sullivan, Paul was “the best medicine for the GOP, not the best president.” After Sullivan argued for this, some readers attacked him on the matter of Paul’s newsletters, and he reconsidered. On Dec. 24, he wrote:

“I sat down and re-read some of the Ron Paul newsletters last night. I don’t think he wrote them; I don’t think they represent who he is; I do not believe the man is a racist, although seeing into men’s souls is not something any of us is very good at.”

He has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans.

There are good reasons for believing Paul is no racist. Paul’s associates — even Eric Dondero, who became his political enemy — say he is not a racist. Paul has written a bunch of books, but never a racist book. He has engaged in numerous political campaigns, but never a racist campaign. He is deeply interested in economic and political ideas, but not ideas about race. And he is not an angry person, as so many racists seem to be.

If Paul is not a racist, then what do the newsletters say about him?

The story of the newsletters was told by Julian Sanchez in Reason four years ago. In 1988 Paul had given up his seat in Congress to run for president on the Libertarian Party. After he lost, he went back to his medical practice. But he had a valuable mailing list, and he kept a side business in newsletters. To produce these letters he had several people working for him. Lew Rockwell was one. Another was Murray Rothbard. Both were right-anarchists, radical free-marketeers. At that time, they had a theory, the “paleo” strategy, that libertarians should market their philosophy to the populist Right. For Rothbard, this wasn’t the first strategy of alliance; in the 1960s he had allied with the New Left. As communism crashed, he proclaimed an alliance with the “paleoconservatives,” which ranged from Patrick Buchanan to lowbrow populists. The Ron Paul newsletters were his vehicle; the nastiness towards black welfare recipients, Martin Luther King, gay AIDS patients, etc., was part of a calculated tone.

Exactly who wrote the stuff is unclear. Rockwell is blamed most often, but he says he mainly wrote promotional copy. Rockwell now runs the libertarian website LewRockwell.com, which can be nasty to pro-war Republicans and the “beltway libertarians” at the Cato Institute, but does not market racism. Rockwell is not interested in race. When the newsletter issue came up four years ago, his contributor Karen DeCoster made the same point about him that others have made about Paul: the newsletters didn’t sound like him. She wrote, “Those excerpts making light of immigrants/blacks etc. are way too snappy and attempt to be way too humorous to have been written by Lew . . . His personality is exactly the opposite.”

Rothbard died in 1995. He could be a snappy writer, and he loved to indulge in polemics. But writing like a redneck would have been striking a pose: he was a Jew raised in the Bronx and had a doctorate in economics from Columbia University.

The critics piling on Paul won’t accept his statement that he doesn’t know who wrote the offending copy. I don’t believe it either, but I accept it, and I respect Paul for not naming names. Why does anyone need to know? It was Paul’s newsletter. He is responsible for it, and the stain is on him.

The crucial question is what kind of a stain it is. Does it mean Paul judges people by their race and that one race is to be favored over another? Based on the rest of his life, particularly the last 15 years, you have to say no. It does suggest some other things, though, starting with the Kirchickian notion that libertarians just don’t care about this stuff. Politically it suggests tone-deafness and poor judgment.

The newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That’s not racism, but it’s not what most Americans look for in a president, either. Then again, Ron Paul is not going to be president. The reason to support him is not that he can win, but that the Republicans, who are America’s nationalist party, need to be reoriented away from war, executive power, deficit spending, money creation and debt toward a more peaceful, constitutional and financially sustainable vision — and the only person who has had any success in doing this is Ron Paul.

Wrote Sullivan: “I stand by all the things I wrote about Paul’s views, his refreshing candor, his happy temperament, his support for minorities, and his vital work to undo the war on drugs and the military-industrial complex. I don’t think he’s a racist; in fact, I think he’s one of the least racially aware politicians I’ve come across in a long while.”

And Shikha Dalmia: “I have never met Paul. But everyone I know who has likes him. They can’t believe that he is capable of harboring the kind of vile sentiments expressed in the newsletters. He seems just too mild and innocuous and decent and well meaning.”

He does. Maybe it’s a pose, but I don’t think so. I think the newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That he has racked up 21.5% of Republican caucus votes after challenging some of the ruling ideas of the party, means he has achieved something, and not only for himself, and not only for 2012.




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What’s Interesting about Iowa

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By the time the Iowa caucus finally happened, even political junkies were sick of it. It was a contest of doubtful influence on anything, and this year it was virtually impossible for anyone to “win” the thing. (A “win,” I believe, should constitute something more than 25%.) CNN and Fox News kept saying that “excitement” was “building.” Right. One Lego block at a time. And those debates — Good God! Why? How many dull parties must you attend? I say none.

But I was surprised and amused by the circus animals who were paraded through the streets of Sioux City, each with its own fleet of trainers and guard of clowns. It wasn’t the greatest show on earth, but it was a show.

Michele Bachmann, who demonstrated that illiteracy need be no handicap to a person’s self-esteem.

Newt Gingrich, who consistently delighted me with his screwiness and bitchiness. Every one of his “new ideas” had me rolling in laughter. (My favorite was the one about summoning local juries to determine whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in this country. As you probably know, I am no friend of open immigration, but if ever there was a court invented by a kangaroo, Gingrich’s immigration jury was it.) I loved the perfect zingers he scored on the other candidates. When an outraged Bachmann demanded to know whether he had called Mitt Romney a liar, Gingrich calmly asked, “Why are you so horrified?” I’m going to miss Newt.

Herman Cain, a good orator, and an intelligent person, who somehow lacked the rare and peculiar kind of intelligence that’s necessary to recall embarrassing incidents in one’s personal life. Of course, this is the kind of intelligence that almost everyone else possesses, but why should it be expected of a presidential candidate?

Jon Huntsman, the candidate from the New York Times.

Rick Santorum, the former Senator from the Roman Catholic Church. Who else would have complimented George Bush, a Methodist, on his performance as a politicized Catholic? “From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there. He has every right to say, 'I’m where you are if you're a believing Catholic.’” The surge that Santorum experienced in Iowa was initiated by conservative Catholics who realized, at last, that this hapless, obscure person was actually a Knight of Magistral Grace of the Knights of Malta.

Mitt Romney, the man who everyone loves to hate. You’ve got to appreciate a candidate whose aides run a Mittness Protection Program.

Rick Perry. You’ve got to love a guy who, being revealed as an ignorant fool, funded an ad campaign in which he admitted to being an ignorant fool, yet urged everyone to vote for him.

I’m going to miss these acts — the acts that go away, of course. The ones that keep going inspire no such nostalgic feelings.

But what of Ron Paul? I am sorry to say, from the dramatic point of view, that I was not surprised by anything that happened with him. I expected him to suffer attacks. And I expected him, notwithstanding the attacks, to achieve about 20% of the vote. He got 21%. That’s about what he usually gets from Republicans (and independents acting as Republicans, as in Iowa) when noses are counted or buttons are pushed.

Believe me, I would rather see myself as part of Paul’s 21% than as part of the less than 1% in which I am placed whenever Libertarian Party registration or voting is measured. But — call me a traitor if you want to — I’ve never believed the results of the Nolan survey or any other questionnaire purporting to show that more than 20% of people in America are really libertarians. They aren’t. If they were, they’d have plenty of opportunities to show it, but they don’t. What they are is people who believe in legalizing drugs and raising taxes on “the wealthy,” or lowering taxes and pursuing a bellicose foreign policy, or some other combination of views that seems, from libertarians’ perspective, incoherent and ridiculous. But America has always been an essentially libertarian country without a libertarian population. It’s the triumph of structure over “the people.”

Would Paul attract more voters if he recognized this? Here’s my reason for asking that question. Paul is a preacher, and he preaches largely to the choir. His rhetoric assumes that “Americans want” what he wants. He seems honestly surprised that anyone should care that Iran has an atom bomb, or worry about his desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve system. But even I care that Iran has the bomb, and I well remember having to be convinced that the Fed was a bad idea. Every libertarian can say the same about his or her experience with libertarian ideas. But Paul has the preacher’s style, not the educator’s, or the conversationalist’s. He talks to people, not with them.

So could he attract more votes if he were a different kind of campaigner? The good thing and the bad thing is that it’s hard to tell whether he could or not. I want to believe that the libertarian philosophy can be conveyed with even greater effect. Yet Ron did very well at holding his 21%, no matter what. And twenty-one percent isn’t a percentage to scorn. There’s leverage in that.




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Gary Johnson for President

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December 28 marked an important day in Libertarian Party history — the day that the party gained a presidential candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, capable of smashing its previous high in any presidential election, and perhaps even making the LP marginally relevant for once (or, at least, gaining the party's second-ever electoral vote). Johnson as standard bearer would be something of a perfect storm for the LP — which, though unavoidably also a tempest in a teapot, would nonetheless make a bigger splash than the Party has ever been capable of before.

Flash back to the last election cycle. No, go back two, to 2004, when the LP, still reeling from Harry Browne’s machinations, nominated a complete unknown as its presidential candidate. The list of “missed opportunities by the Libertarian Party” is a long and tragicomic one, but surely the choice of Michael Badnarik must be at or near the top: in an election evenly split between the military-statist Bush and the eco-statist Gore, the LP could’ve had a healthy cut of the excluded middle — but Badnarik’s was not the name to draw those voters.

In 2008, with that swing-and-a-miss behind them, the LP whiffed with the opposite approach, nominating a big name who was a, shall we say, imperfect fit with party ideals. I’m not one to deny the place of pragmatism in politics, but the man who authored the Defense of Marriage Amendment and fervently prosecuted the Drug War was a strange choice for the supposed party of freedom. No matter how hard he pushed his Road to Damascus narrative, a large chunk of the LP base (namely, donors and state and local party poobahs) was never going to buy into his campaign.

As a result, Bob Barr’s failure was utterly predictable — the rift in the party in 2008 was clear for all to see — but more to the point, just as utterly inevitable. In Barack Obama, the Democrats found a candidate who could reach out to the same undecideds the LP tries to make its own — those looking to cast a vote in dissent, anything so long as it has nothing to do with the party in power. Empty as we now know (or always knew) his promises of “Hope” and “Change” to be, they were nonetheless effective in closing off any change the Libertarians had of playing a role in the last cycle.

All of which is to say, the LP screwed up by getting its candidates backward — if anything, the off-the-ranch Republican with name recognition would have fared much better in 2004, serving as an alternative to two unpalatable statists. Meanwhile, 2008 would have been the time to run an outsider, someone who could elucidate a libertarian point of view, in the rare moments he (or she — vide Mary Ruwart) was called upon to do so.

But in 2012, the LP has the opportunity to pitch a candidate to an electorate seemingly sick of the whole process. Obama’s broken promises, aforementioned, have alienated a small but substantial portion of his base — those who cannot overlook our nation’s ongoing, unnecessary, and inhumane foreign wars; the continued attacks on the constitutional rights of the citizenry; the all-enveloping secrecy in which the government carries on its affairs; the gulag archipelago we are building up in our modern prison system . . . in short, all those left-leaning pundits and bloggers not in step with the all-conquering Obama line foisted upon us hourly by the power-loving, bootlicking establishment media outlets.

Who will these people turn to? Certainly not the Republican Party, at least not once Ron Paul again is defeated by, or cedes way to, a far inferior challenger. Despite moments in the sun for the laughable Herman Cain and the odious Newt Gingrich (not to mention Rick Perry’s campaign, brought to you by Tom of Finland), this nomination has from the first been Mitt Romney’s to lose. Only trouble is, Romney and Obama are, as The Root recognized long ago, nearly the same person. And more recently, one of Romney’s chief advisors was heard loudly rattling the saber for war with Iran — something that seems increasingly inevitable whichever party ends up with its finger on the button.

Hence, there is a chance that an experienced, eloquent Libertarian Party candidate — one capable of making, forcefully, the case against war, whether against other nations that pose no threat to us, or against those of our own citizens whose only crime is to ingest federally frowned-upon substances — could steal a sizable chunk of the vote, and not just from the college crowd (who, as we all know, don’t vote — I should know: I am one still). And that’s where Gary Johnson comes in. He’s an experienced pol who has the benefit of gaining his experience in a somewhat out-of-the-way state, allowing him both to get away with more than he might elsewhere (witness the in-progress crucifixion of Chris Christie in New Jersey), and to get raves from both Right and Left at different times for his handling of budgets and various other crises.

Additionally, Johnson has a legitimate beef with the presidential process, which effectively killed his campaign before it had hardly started by the simple expedient of refusing to let him speak alongside other candidates. By switching over to the LP, Johnson can present himself as a true outsider, one unbeholden to the major-party machines and their media purse-chihuahuas. His strongest issue, the legalization of marijuana (and decriminalization of other presently illegal drugs), will find supporters all along the political spectrum, especially those who for some reason expected Obama to live up to promises to back off medical dispensaries, rather than double down on the persecution. And he is glib enough (and has the voting record, besides) to avoid the typical traps laid down for third-party candidates: disaster management, education and child safety, national security. Likewise, he lacks the baggage some others do — most particularly, he has no history of orgazinational racism or anti-gay bias in his past. And — though this ought to be by far the least important thing about him — at 58 and in good shape, he remains telegenic and does not come off as a coot or a crank.

To close, I note that this is not an endorsement, either for Liberty or for myself, personally. It is, instead, a recommendation. If the Libertarian Party wishes to be relevant in this cycle, then it should gather round Johnson early on, kick the fundraising into gear, and come May’s national convention, launch his candidacy with as much money and PR as can be mustered. If, instead, the LP’s members wish to continue as they always have, then they should quibble and cavil and play up faults in Johnson’s record, and ensure that he is hobbled heading into the general election.

The choice is there, and with it a rare opportunity. But with things finally breaking the LP’s way, what remains to be seen is whether the party is capable of taking advantage.



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And the Winner Is — Ryan Gosling

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Ryan Gosling is having a helluva great year. First he demonstrated his comedic depth and timing in Crazy, Stupid Love. Then in Drive he gave one of the quietest, subtlest, most understated, and yet most over-the-top-brutal performances since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Gosling is the man who made grown men cry in The Notebook. He's one of the finest actors in Hollywood. And he's thinking of retiring. At 30. Please, Ryan, say it ain't so!

But now he has stolen the spotlight from the master scene-stealer himself, George Clooney, in The Ides of March.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a campaign staffer and media specialist for presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is a career campaign worker with the goal of becoming a campaign manager some day. But Morris is a candidate Stephen believes in. This time it goes beyond business. He really wants Morris to win.

As a libertarian, I had a hard time agreeing with the idealistic Stephen on this. During several scenes, Morris is heard campaigning in the background while political intrigue is developing in the foreground between Stephen and other characters. His slogans are intended to be taken seriously (director-producer-screenwriter Clooney is, of course, an outspoken Democrat), but they are laughably naive. Here’s a sampling:

"The rich complain that our tax policy is a redistribution of the wealth, but what they really want is distribution of the wealth to the richest Americans by our government." This is received with wild applause, as though our paternalistic government somehow creates all the wealth in the country and then doles it out to its favorite sons. (Sadly, this silly idea seems to be believed by many Americans.) In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines." Shorelines? I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to see that at the climax of the sentence.

"The cause of terrorism is oil," he naively observes. "If we don't need oil, the terrorists will go away." This simple-minded foreign policy is quickly followed by Morris' economic strategy: "Within four years of my administration, no new cars will run on combustible engines, and we will lead the world again!" Now there's a plan to jumpstart this economy!

And this one: "Everyone should be able to afford college. Under my administration, all 18-year-olds will perform two years of mandatory national service, and when they return, their college tuition will be free." Stephen cynically tells Morris this is a win-win proposition because voters are over 18 and thus would not have to serve, while people under 18 can't vote. Doesn't he realize that people under 18 have parents who are over 18? Doesn't he realize that the "free tuition" would have to be funded by taxpaying voters? And doesn't he realize that "mandatory service" is not “free”?

In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines."

The first half of the film focuses on the background machinations of the campaign trail, especially Stephen's interactions with Morris's campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the manager of Morris' chief opponent. These scenes are intended to create suspense leading toward the second act, but they are dialogue-heavy and rely too much on the audience’s understanding of the background politics. The film is adapted from a stage play, and often this leads to a screenplay that is too heavy in exposition. The scenes are smart and sassy and intended to be ironic, but irony only works when the audience knows the dual meaning of what is said and can anticipate the punchline or unintended result.

In this case, it doesn't quite work. The film's conflict pivots on a meeting, early in the train of events, between Stephen and Tom. The meeting is in a public place and lasts a few minutes. Ida (Marisa Tomei), a seasoned campaign reporter, gets wind of the meeting and threatens to print the story, as though it would create a major scandal. Sure, people working behind the scenes might be concerned about the purpose of such a meeting, but in light of the fact that no information is exchanged, would the public be alarmed? Would anyone care? Come on! There are any number of legitimate reasons for representatives of the two campaigns to meet. James Carville and Mary Matalin, darlings of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, are married, for heaven's sake! This is no scandal, and it weakens the first half of the story, when suspense should be developing.

Nevertheless, if the viewer is able to suspend disbelief about that, the scandal that develops in the second half of the film, when the campaigning ends and the dirty tricks begin, is dynamite. It involves a beautiful young intern (Rachel Evan Wood) whose father (Gregory Itzin, the Nixon lookalike who played slimy President Logan in 24) is president of the DNC. Tension mounts, rising toward a showdown that more than makes up for the slowness of the first act. But now the focus is on personal relationships, not on politics.

Director Clooney wisely allows his fourth-billed actor to run away with this show. Giamatti, Clooney, and Hoffman may be the award-winning veterans, but Gosling is the ascending star. At one point his character is struggling with what to do about the clashing dilemmas. Instead of hamming it up with scenery-chewing angst, a la Giamatti (who plays his role with Machiavellian effect, I might add), Gosling turns inward. At one point we see him seated in a straight-backed chair, eyes staring forward, virtually interrogating himself. Suddenly his eyes glance to his right, as though he were reading his own mind. Nothing else moves, and nothing is said. So simple. So effective.

Clooney's own politics are well known in Hollywood and throughout the country. He uses his celebrity to spread political propaganda for the Democrats. So it may seem surprising to see him portray a Democratic candidate who is corruptible and opportunistic. But this cagey maneuver effectively defuses any sense that this is a propaganda project. It allows the film to transcend party politics and appeal to a broader audience. Unfortunately, however, Clooney adds a throwaway line early in the film that reveals his true feelings. Campaign manager Zara defends a campaign decision by saying, "We are simply doing what the Republicans have been doing successfully for years." In other words, the Republicans made him do it. Mike Morris may be a Democrat in philosophy, but his mistakes are entirely Republican. Bravo, Clooney!

The film's title, The Ides of March, suggests a conflict between loyalty and betrayal in high places, and in that respect, the film delivers. Clooney's own politics aside, it is not so much about political policy as it is about office politics. It is about friendship, revenge, and disillusionment.

My favorite line from the film is a character's justification for retaliation: "You didn't make a mistake. You made a choice." The Ides of March isn't a great film, but it's a good film with several great performances. I think it would be a mistake if your choice is to miss it. Moreover, Ryan Gosling recently announced on Conan O'Brien's show that he might not be making any more. And that choice would indeed be a mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Ides of March," directed by George Clooney. Columbia Pictures-Cross Creek, 2011. 101 minutes.



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Obama, the Soaring Sofa

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Clichés are an inexhaustible subject. I’ll always have more to say about them. It’s interesting to watch them come and go — preferably go.

Take “soaring rhetoric.” (Please!) I don’t know who started that, but once somebody did, it became the phrase almost universally employed in speaking of Candidate Obama’s speeches. I could never understand this phenomenon. His speeches sounded to me like nothing but a tissue of . . . well, clichés. And not very good clichés. If you don’t share that view, please quote a memorable passage from any one of Obama’s utterances. You can’t do it, can you? But, for better or worse, you can quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You can recall “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You can remember “This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The difference is that those passages became clichés, whereas Obama’s remarks were clichés to begin with.

But the popularity of his words was something to behold. Immediately they were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast. The very description of Obama’s clichés became a cliché. Every time he said anything whatever, his rhetoric soared. But then a bad thing happened. Soaring appeared more and more in adversative expressions, such as, “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric, listeners commented on the apparent lack of substance in his address on Tuesday”; and in embarrassing questions, such as, “Can soaring rhetoric pull the president out of his political difficulties?”

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase (all right, the only cliché) that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.” And that wasn’t a saying that started out good or useful and got tired from over-use. It was bad in itself. It was empty, imageless. It pictured nothing; it evoked nothing concrete, or even symbolic. It was an abstraction chasing some other abstraction. In that respect, it was the image of its author’s mind. But it was the best cliché that Obama (or, to be fair, the Obama forces) could come up with. All his other clichés were quotations from sources known but to God.

Immediately his words were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast.

Today I went to Google and typed in “obama speech text,” prepared to discuss whatever came up first. It turned out to be his congressional “jobs” speech on Sept. 8. Here are some passages from that speech, which were also selected virtually at random. I’ve put most of the president’s blank, anonymous, deadening clichés in italics.

American “men and women,” the president said, “grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share — where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while. If you did the right thing, you could make it. Anybody could make it in America.

“For decades now, Americans have watched that compact erode. They have seen the decks too often stacked against them. And they know that Washington has not always put their interests first.

“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. (Applause.) The question is — the question is whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

“Those of us here tonight can’t solve all our nation’s woes. Ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help. We can make a difference.”

You could write a book about the sheer ignorance of these remarks. The president actually believes that “fairness and security . . . defined” America since its “beginning.” If they had, isn’t it odd that neither “fairness” nor “fair” nor “security” nor “secure,” in any economic sense of those words, appears in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? “Secure” and “security” are there, but only in such contexts as the second amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is one source that Obama certainly didn’t intend to allude to.

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.”

But look at what he did intend, and reflect on it. What personal security had the early settlers of this continent, who died like flies on the Atlantic shore? What economic fairness had the slaves languishing in the southern states? What fairness or security had the builders of new industries, new financial institutions, and new methods of communication, whose investments might at any time be swept away by American governments trying to provide economic security for other people?

What aspect of fairness was entailed by the bribes that businessmen had to pay to get their railroads through some of our more rapacious western states? What fairness was evinced by southern laws stipulating that slaves could not be freed, even by their owners, or by southern and northern laws prohibiting free persons of color from living in certain states?

Whoever believed that “anybody could make it in America”? Whoever believed that there was a “compact” guaranteeing him “a decent salary and good benefits”? Who wrote that compact? Who signed it? Where can it be read?

Yet these words were spoken, not only by the president of the United States, but by a lawyer and instructor of law.

Obama’s ignorance of history is extraordinary, even among politicians. His ignorance of grammar and diction is more representative of the tribe. The president believes that “our nation’s woes” can be “solved,” as if woe were a problem, rather than a response to problems. “Oh baby, lemme solve your woes.” He thinks that “everyone” — “everyone” — is plural: “everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share.” He thinks that “recovery” can be “driven,” like a goose or an SUV. He pictures contracts — “compacts” — as things that “erode,” like farmland or, metaphorically, like confidence in our current president. I can picture confidence slowly diminishing, eroding away; I cannot picture a contract undergoing the same experience. Can Obama picture these things, or is he merely speaking word after word, sentence after sentence, without anything in his brain at all?

But perhaps the worst thing, if there could be anything worse than that hokum about fairness and security, is the enormous trust that Obama places in his words, never realizing how dull they are. As usual with him, the clichés in this speech are a dusty collection of game and sports metaphors (“stepped up” [to the plate], “decks too often stacked”), movie memorabilia (“did the right thing,” as in the 1989 film by Spike Lee), and Rotarian and labor union filler (“make it in America”). People who are a hundred years old have been hearing this kind of thing all their lives. If you’re going to borrow a cliché, you might at least borrow it from Lincoln or Jefferson or the Bible or Citizen Kane, not from some source that long ago drowned in the marshes of Lethe.

What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control.

And if you’re going to use a cliché, you might at least use one that makes sense. Consider “We can make a difference.” I’m not a big admirer of President Kennedy, but can you imagine him trying to work some kind of climax out of “We can make a difference”? The same can be said of President Reagan. His rhetoric was ordinarily not as good as Kennedy’s, but would he ever have intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, we can make a difference”? No, no more than Kennedy would have considered saying, “Ask not how your country can make a difference for you; ask how you can make a difference for your country.” Nothing, not even the biggest bottle of Scotch or the most urgent ongoing national crisis, could have induced either of those gentlemen to put that phrase in a position of prominence.

Well, why not? Because anybody with sense, upon hearing “We can make a difference,” would ask the obvious questions: What kind of difference? How much of a difference? Can I get by with making just a little difference? Is it OK if I make a difference, but it makes things worse? It’s usually easier to make things worse — would that be all right with you?

Pause.

When I reached this point in the column, my conscience began to bother me. All this attention paid to Obama . . . . What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control. Why not give his opponents some attention, also?

It’s true, Republicans are just as addicted as Obama to saying that we need togrow “the economy,” or “jobs,” or anything else that can’t actually be grown. It’s as if they had never heard those common and useful words develop, increase, expand, improve. They are just as willing as Obama to tell you that they won’t sit idly by while this or that goes on. And they are just as willing to beat a phrase to death — a tendency that is especially regrettable when they accidentally find a good phrase, such as “class warfare.”

So, remembering the manifold and grievous sins of the Republicans, and mindful also of the fairness that defines this nation, I decided to see what House Speaker John Boehner had to say about Obama’s jobs proposal, and take a few swipes at Boehner’s soaring rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, when I pulled up the long “jobs” speech that Boehner gave before the Economic Club of Washington on Sept. 15, I found little that was worth satirizing. It wasn’t a bad speech.

Admittedly, there were a few syntactical problems. And the speech showed that Republicans as well as Democrats can fall back on socialist clichés, derived from the labor theory of value (conclusively disproven a mere 140 years ago). "Our economy,” Boehner said, “has always been built on opportunity . . . on entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers willing to take a chance — because they're confident if they work hard, they can succeed.” If hard work guarantees success, then what “chance” are the “risk-takers” taking? And hard work means nothing if people aren’t willing to buy the products of your work. Isabel Paterson, the author of many books, said the final word on this subject: “You could put a great deal of energy into producing something nobody wants very much. This disconcerting fact is peculiarly noticeable in the production of books.” Well, maybe the final word should have been “speeches.”

In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find.

But the “work hard” passage was the worst feature of Boehner’s talk. If you want soaring rhetoricat least rhetoric that isn’t the verbal equivalent of some extinct, flightless bird — you’d do better reading Boehner than Obama. That’s a terrible thing to say about anyone, but it’s true. Our president, so famous for words, is really, really bad with them. He’s pretentious and humorless; his vocabulary is severely restricted; his rhetorical techniques can be numbered on a horse’s fingers; he cannot tell a story; his range of serious allusion is virtually nonexistent; his sentences are mere parking lots for cheap clichés. He is dull, dull, dull. So why do people think he’s a good speaker?

The first reason is that they happen to agree with him. The second reason is that they happen to agree with him. The third reason is that they happen to agree with him.

But there are other reasons. He’s not bad looking. He’s a mechanical speaker, but he speaks with confidence, and that is a guaranteed grab for at least a third of any audience. He also speaks rather rapidly; unlike most other politicians, he doesn’t remind you of a cow systematically chewing its cud. His speeches are usually far too long, but that doesn’t matter on TV; studies show that people are almost always multi-tasking when they watch the tube. Obama has nothing to say that would interfere with checking the curtains or heating up the microwave or regretting that Junior tracked in some more of that mud. In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find. His clichés — so insipid, so repetitive, so predictable, so soporific . . .

Pardon me; I just dozed off.

Soaring rhetoric? Obama is the oratorical equivalent of a sofa. But there’s something about a sofa — it always gets worn out a lot sooner than you think it will.




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Bachmann the Ominous

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“Don’t settle!”

So Representative Michele Bachmann shrilled repeatedly in a speech at Liberty University in late September, a speech rebroadcast on C-SPAN. Curiously, she never said what she meant by that theme of her entire speech. To judge from all the recounting of her own religious experiences, she meant: “Don’t settle for less than total commitment to Jesus Christ.”

But a campaign speech must have meant more than that. By implication, anyway, Bachmann meant: “Don’t settle for less than ideal public policies; do not compromise or even discuss compromise or delay.”

Bachmann described miserable conditions in the Plymouth Colony in 1630, when the colonists were nevertheless persuaded not to return to England. The lesson she was evidently drawing was: “Stick to the projects you have embarked upon,” and, by implication: “Never change course; never recognize and learn from mistakes.”

For scientific research, “Don’t settle” is sound advice. Scientific questions are not settled by compromise, by counting scientists’ heads, by argumentum ad hominem or ad populum, by personal abuse, or by what Ayn Rand called “argument from intimidation.” Scientific questions are settled, but only provisionally, by evidence and reasoning, with scientists double-checking each others’ work and being willing to revise their own judgments.

But Bachmann was not delivering a speech on scientific method. In her political context, she meant: “Don’t compromise on ideal public policy as it has been infallibly revealed to me and to you.” Such a mindset is ominous in anyone and especially in an aspirant for high office.




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