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The Art of Oration: Short Is Always Good

January 24, 1993|Garry Wills | Garry Wills, an historian at Northwestern University, is author of "The Kennedy Imprisonment" and "Reagan's America: Innocence at Home." His most recent work, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," was recently nominated for the National Book Award

EVANSTON, ILL. — Short is good, especially for Bill Clinton; but short, in itself, is not enough. One can be short and great, like Abraham Lincoln, or short and serviceable, like Clinton. "Lots of wisdom in that document, I sus pect," was Lincoln's own judgment on the 600 words in his second Inaugural Address. Few, it is safe to predict, will be mining Clinton's 1,600 words for "lots of wisdom."

It is not fair to think anyone can live up to Lincoln's rhetoric. How did Clinton fare by less exalted standards? His theme was John F. Kennedy's, the passing of the torch to a new generation, one "raised in the shadows of the Cold War" (Clinton is the first President since World War II not to have been in the service during that war). Kennedy had spoken for a generation "born in this century"--a clear reference to his predecessor's age. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been born in 1890. Clinton was more generous to George Bush, thanking his whole generation for its stand against "Depression, fascism and communism."

But even in his tribute to Bush's "half-century of service" there was the hint of farewell to an older world. The first burst of applause Clinton got was at the line, "This is our time." In context, it referred to Thomas Jefferson's claim that a time to change everything should come with some frequency; but some in the audience clearly took it as a generational proclamation. The baby boomers have arrived.

Clinton made it clear that for all the brave stands against foreign enemies, Bush left him a country internally ravaged. Drift "has eroded our resources, fractured our economy and shaken our confidence." Some thought this ungracious to Bush, but it was not as scathing as Kennedy was on foreign challenges bequeathed him by Eisenhower, nor as sharp as Franklin D. Roosevelt was on Herbert Hoover's Depression legacy. Roosevelt denounced, in accents of biblical wrath, the money-changers in the temple.

Clinton spoke for a generation that does not fear change but makes it a friend, one that has "summoned the change we celebrate," that is forcing the season, pressing ahead of the calendar. This was his version of Roosevelt's having nothing to fear but fear itself. Like Roosevelt, too, his emphasis was on domestic problems (Kennedy gave his whole speech over to foreign policy). Clinton had a dutiful short section on meeting international commitments, but first, last and principally he spoke to our national condition. The only specific program he mentioned was "a season of service for the young," which transplants Kennedy's Peace Corps to the home scene.

Though he called for sacrifice, there were no details here--understandably, Roosevelt was vague, too, about practical counterattacks on the money-changers. But Clinton's pledge to use "all the authority of my office" was a milder restatement of the line that got most applause at Roosevelt's 1933 inauguration, his call for "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency."

The speech's content was unobjectionable, but the language was flimsy. Great writing is something you can lean your weight against; it will resist, it has weight of its own. Flimsy language "gives," as if you were putting your hand through stage scenery. Consider, for instance, the seasonal imagery that ran all through the address--a good device in itself. Martin Luther King Jr. used it in the early part of his March on Washington speech.

The basic text, a favorite of Clinton's, was Galatians 6.9: "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." (William Safire seeks to score a libertarian point by noting that, four verses earlier, St. Paul wrote "Every man shall bear his own burden"--a polemical strike canceled by the line, three verses before that, saying "Bear ye one another's burdens.")

Agrarian imagery is prominent in the Bible, from Ecclesiastes 3.1-2: "To every thing there is a season . . . a time to plant and a time to pluck up." But Clinton also wanted to use a line given him by the late Father Timothy Healey, without noticing that it contradicted his other seasonal language. Twice, Clinton said that Americans have "forced the spring." In horticultural contexts, force is a common word--as in forcing beds and forcing houses. It refers to artificial conditions created to bring in plants before their season. But St. Paul said we should reap "in due season." Hothouse flowers are not good images of the sturdy plants Clinton had in mind.

Who cares? Not many, apparently. This is language that will not bear much thinking about. Its carelessness extended to grammatical error: "whose toil and sweat sends us here." It included legal imprecision: "the oath I have just sworn to uphold"--the oath is not to uphold the oath but the Constitution. It veered into weird metaphor: "construct from these crises the pillars of our history"--the crises themselves are not the material that lasts.

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