When orators and [audiences] have the same prejudices, those prejudices run a great risk of being made to stand for incontestable truths.
All that is necessary to raise imbecility into what the mob regards as profundity is to lift it off the floor and put it on a platform.
George Jean Nathan
Presidential rhetoric has devolved, and during my lifetime. Once upon a time, Presidents spoke publicly in a dignified, formal manner. (Privately, things were quite different.) Sometimes the speeches reflected their own thoughts and ideas.
Sometimes they said things worth remembering. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex proved to be frighteningly true. FDR’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” was a profound statement of social psychology.
Presidential rhetoric has been going downhill for a long time.
Presidents are less and less involved, and speechwriters, absent intelligent guidance, are allowed to turn out tripe, with speeches devoid of anything but bragging about accomplishments or selling huge new government “investments” – i.e., handouts, to favored groups, of monies confiscated from you and me.
Some have it; some don’t
Any discussion of Presidential rhetoric must include the ability to (i) at least deliver — and maybe even write — a script and to (ii) speak ex tempore with a fairly large amount of information at one’s fingertips.
Can a President be coherent and articulate without a TelePrompTer? Being able to string together a few connected sentences, or even speak coherently for a few minutes off the cuff – say, in answer to a media question — is a hit-or-miss skill with Presidents. Some have it; some don’t.
And even if they can spew forth grammatical sentences, they aren’t necessarily saying anything. Of all the millions of words of gauzy Obama rhetoric (he mistakenly thought he was his own best speechwriter), all I remember is “clinging to their guns and Bibles” and “you didn’t build that.” The former caricatures his opponents; the latter is an in-your-face statement of just how important he thinks government is.
Saying nothing eloquently
Clinton was another master of saying nothing articulately. Man, did that man love to hear himself talk! His debut on the national stage was his nomination of Michael Dukakis at the Democratic Convention of 1988, when he went on and on and ON for 36 minutes. His long-windedness was a national joke. Clinton himself chuckled about it on Johnny Carson’s show.
Disconnection of speaker from speech
Reagan marked the near-complete disconnection of speaker from speech. I say “near” because he actually had ideas of his own, consistent over many years. Plus, he was a master at delivering lines, and Peggy Noonan gave him some fine lines to deliver.
Over time, Presidents, with few exceptions, became less able, maybe completely unable to write a speech (or even edit someone else’s). They gave less and less attention to even developing the germ of a speech-idea; they let others answer the basic rhetorical question of “what do I want to say to this audience, to the media, to the American people?”
This year, Presidential rhetoric switched 180 degrees, going from non-stop unfiltered narcissistic blather to…well, zero – and so quickly that it’s giving us language-watchers a case of intellectual whiplash.
Trump sometimes said something!
Trump, though he committed many idiocies (“Who knew health care was so complicated?”), sometimes actually said something. He stayed relentlessly on-message and strung together complete, grammatical sentences (most of the time); despite his droning TelePrompTer delivery, his impromptu gibberish and platitudes, his brashness and braggadocio, not to mention countless documentable lies, there was still a brand (America) and a brand promise (MAGA). But he was pathetically short on anything memorable, thoughtful, or quotable.
And now we have the exact opposite – instead of a President who talks all the time, often letting his brain free-associate in public (“Aren’t you lucky I’m your President?”), we have a man with nothing to say — a cipher, a weathervane, an empty suit if ever there was one.
What makes his performances cringe-worthy is not only his early-onset dementia, because it’s not as if we are witnessing the decline of a brilliant mind. This guy never had anything to start with. He plagiarized or fabricated huge portions of his life, copying from other kids in school. And, most outrageous of all, as a candidate, he appropriated another politician’s autobiography as his own.
Why his plagiarism still matters
I’m no psychiatrist, but I don’t want the Oval Office occupied by someone who can’t distinguish “ideas originating in my own mind” from “ideas coming from someone else’s mind.” I tend to question such a person’s grip on truth and reality. That’s why Biden’s plagiarism still matters.
There’s no “there” there.
And that’s why he’s so malleable, so programmable, why his one and only Big Idea is to outspend the most extravagant of his predecessors – LBJ and FDR (Biden will never get the honor of just-initials). His 40-watt intellect tells him that this will ensure his place in history.
No surprise, really: What else is to be expected from a man who has spent 50 years in government? When the only tool you have is a hammer…
So far, his most memorable phrase is “C’mon, man!”, as if Jumblin’ Joe were so far ahead of you that he can’t be bothered to explain himself, when in fact the opposite is the case: he’s got nothing. Also, he likes to say, “here’s the deal,” a signal that he’s actually prepared to attempt to utter a coherent thought.
Whoever decides what he says is blessed with a blank slate. He’ll say and do anything. He’ll tell any lie they feed him, with the same enthusiasm. So far, their control has been pretty good.
But not always. What exactly is the comparison between “Jim Crow” and “Jim Eagle” supposed to mean? That something is exponentially worse than separate drinking fountains, sitting in the back of the bus, terror, lynching, and all the other humiliations and atrocities of the real Jim Crow? I think he went bizarrely off-script and tried to create his own memorable slogan. Cringe.
(Yet another liberal language abuse: inapt, inept, fallaciously hyperbolic comparisons, repeated endlessly.)
Team Biden, you have infinitely more control than Trump’s handlers. I do not find that comforting.
That the President is a doddering puppet should be even more frightening than having the office occupied by a corrupt, pretend-patriotic autocrat, disturbing as that was. At least we knew who was running the country (sometimes). And we knew that at least some of his thoughts and words were his own.