- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999


We listen to the candidates present their ideas in debates, stump speeches, nightly sound-bites on the news, and it's difficult not to notice the lack of eloquence.
Except for Alan Keyes, no one's language soars like an eagle, and even he sounds more like a preacher man than a politician. Most of the candidates are characterized by bluntness of phrase. They may exaggerate their positions and those of their adversaries, but they're all a quart low on rhetorical flourishes.
That is the curse of our age. We distrust oratory. We're more comfortable with plain talk. We think rhetoric in the classical sense can mislead by appealing to the emotions rather than level heads. We're willing to sacrifice the poetry for raw data. Indeed, we cheerfully sacrifice grammar and syntax.
Gleaves Whitney, the chief speechwriter for John Engler, the Republican governor of Michigan, wants to change that. He wants to bring back classical oratory to infuse strong leadership. Focus groups and polling data, a reliance on handlers and spin are no longer "handmaids but masters of public policy," he says. They are post-modern maladies which cheat the voter, replacing appeals to truth, goodness and beauty with "brute Machiavellians."
Mr. Whitney was in Washington to give a lecture at the Heritage Foundation to honor the memory of Russell Kirk, the conservative thinker and a founding father of modern conservatism. He said politicians today generally use rhetoric as a mirror held up to public polls rather than as a lamp which illuminates ideas and challenges the voter.
Bill Clinton is a mirror president. He even asked for a poll to decide whether to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"Where there is a bankruptcy of ideas, there is an inevitable corruption of language and argument," says Mr. Whitney. That's why Bill Clinton could quibble over what the meaning of "is" is. He who abuses power abuses language.
Our current crop of candidates appeals to ordinariness in their speech because after eight years of Bill Clinton, a master at twisting language and "facts" to serve his personal purposes, plain speaking suggests honest motives.
The public has been schooled to mistrust politicians and those who speak in embellished phrases are often accused of using language for manipulation. Rhetoric at its best bravely fuses a politics of ideas with the power to persuade and drives both with an engine of truth.
Ronald Reagan understood this when he called the Soviet Union the "evil empire." He was harshly attacked by his enemies and even criticized by some of his friends. But in Moscow after the demise of the Soviet Union, I met Russians who said they cheered on learning what Ronald Reagan had said. "That's exactly right," more than one of them told me. Truth will out.
Mr. Whitney tells how Abraham Lincoln's use of bold language frightened his handlers but reflected light from his lamp of integrity. When Lincoln wanted to use the phrase, drawn from the Bible that a "house divided against itself cannot stand," his advisers, friends and supporters opposed it. They said it was too impolitic, too polarizing. Lincoln, believing the people needed to hear "the stark choice before them," was adamant.
"The time has come," he said, "when these sentiments should be uttered. And if it's decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth. Let me die in the advocacy of what is just and what is right."
What we all want to hear from the candidates today is an advocacy for what is just and what is right.
Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of the most powerful rhetorical images into the speeches of President Bush, writes that George W. is a better speaker than his father and he's smart enough to be president. But she wonders whether he's strong enough to be president.
"Would he stick with the right but boring or unfashionable thing?" she asks in an essay in The Wall Street Journal. "Would he stand firm if all the polls were going one way but he was certain the country had to go another? Would he dedicate himself to the hard, slow work of changing public opinion? Would he take the hard knocks and allow himself to be thought less of by the various elites?"
Those are questions that ought to be asked of all of the candidates. Is there a man in the wings worthy of the rhetorical legacy of Lincoln and Reagan?

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