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Speaking up for eloquence

There is a place for poetry in politics -- and in governing.

May 16, 2008|Calvin Trillin | Calvin Trillin is the author, most recently, of "About Alice."

May I offer a few words in defense of eloquence? You wouldn't think that eloquence is the sort of thing that needs defending, but it has taken some hits during the presidential primaries. Other sorts of speaking skills went pretty much uncriticized.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, was marvelously articulate at times, and no one saw any reason to complain about that. Mitt Romney was praised as a smooth talker -- although when I listened to him, I found myself glancing around for the PowerPoint screen. There was widespread admiration for Mike Huckabee's ability to make humorous remarks that didn't sound as if they'd been manufactured in advance by staff.

But there was something dismissive when Barack Obama's eloquence was mentioned by other candidates, as if making inspiring speeches is an inconsequential pastime unconnected to the serious business of governing. The same tone was taken by most television commentators -- the people I have always lumped together, whether their TV appearances are on Sunday morning or not, as the Sabbath Gasbags. Speaking of Obama's ability to "fill a stadium," they sounded like particularly esoteric academics discussing a colleague who was gauche enough to have produced a bestseller.

I agree with what Clinton said in January -- that passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act required both the inspirational language of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the persuasiveness of Lyndon B. Johnson. Denouncing that remark as disrespectful to King seemed to me an example of the "gotcha" politics that we've had to endure so much of during recent campaigns.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that (as she said, quoting former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo) "you campaign in poetry and govern in prose."

Obviously, a lot of governing is, to put it simply, boring. If it weren't, the media wouldn't be so much more interested in politics than they are in government. But there is a place for poetry. In fact, when Cuomo was himself considering a presidential run, it seemed to me that his eloquence was one of the stronger arguments for his candidacy; anybody familiar with the speech he gave on abortion at Notre Dame in 1984 had to regret the prospect of not ever being able to hear what he would have come up with as an inaugural address.

A president is not a prime minister. In our system, he is the head of state as well as the head of government. It's part of his job to comfort the American people in times of distress or inspire them to sacrifice for the greater good or, as Obama did in his January speech about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., get them thinking. Until Johnson ran into Vietnam, he was an effective president; if he had been able to speak the way Cuomo can speak, he would have been a more effective president.

When Johnson was brought low by the Vietnam War, the late Alf Landon, the wise former governor of Kansas (and Republican presidential candidate against Franklin D. Roosevelt) said something like this: "When he first came in, people said, 'He's really a wheeler-dealer.' Now they say, 'He's nothing but a wheeler-dealer.' "

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I think what Landon meant was that Johnson had no capital to spend when he reached a rough patch. Dwight Eisenhower's capital was the respect that came from having orchestrated victory in Europe. John F. Kennedy's was his charm. Among today's candidates, John McCain is cushioned by the admiration of virtually all Americans for his courageous military service in Vietnam. Obama has eloquence.

An American president is judged partly by how much of his program makes its way through Congress. But, even when his own party is in the majority, he has no direct control over Congress in the way a prime minister has control over parliament. He gets his way partly by the arm-twisting and deal-making that Johnson did so well, but partly through judicious use of his capital. I suspect that a congressman contemplating whether he wanted to cross President Obama would be thinking not "he can fill a stadium" but "he can fill a stadium in my district." That would come close to governing in poetry.

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