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FIELDS: Half-time entertainment
How clever of Barack Obama to schedule his acceptance of his party’s nomination in the Denver Broncos stadium, which seats 75,000 fans. We’ll get the half-time entertainment without having to sit through the football game (or a wardrobe malfunction). What a perfect sign of our times — a focus on noise, light and spectacle.
While John McCain struggles to learn how to read a teleprompter, Mr. Obama soars on his talent as a dazzling speaker. His acceptance speech will even fall on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. Few candidates could stand the comparison, but Mr. Obama might.
The Republican National Convention Committee, displaying more than a little envy, accuses the Democrats of relying on “stagecraft and theatrics” over substance. But there’s some merit in their chagrin. Spectacle enhances the candidate’s emotional appeal, though relying on style over substance carries risks.
When John Kenneth Galbraith coined the phrase “conventional wisdom” five decades ago, he wasn’t talking about what’s going on at a convention, but about what’s generally perceived to be fashionably acceptable. In our medium-is-the-message age, spectacle is acceptable but it can make us feel like we’re being patronized. In “The Anti-Intellectual Presidency,” Elvin T. Lim traces the decline of presidential rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, and finds an increasing reliance on applause lines rather than the imparting of information or making an effective argument.
From FDR through Bill Clinton, the word “applause” occurs in the speeches of presidents 1,939 times. Ninety-seven percent of the references occur in the speeches of Richard Nixon through Mr. Clinton. Even George W., no great orator, played to the pause for applause. An average of 71 applause breaks punctuated each of his State of the Union addresses, 29 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of his speech. Such partisan interruptions trump persuasion.
Mr. Clinton, a natural at the podium, got rousing ovations as partisan punch lines rolled across his tongue like honey on an apple. When a teleprompter failed in the middle of one of his State of the Union addresses, he extemporized effortlessly. Not for nothing was he called “Slick Willie.”
In the dumbing down of education, we’ve deprived generations of school children the study of rhetoric, a staple back when studies in Latin and Greek were required, too. As we struggle to leave no child behind in English and math, the study of rhetoric is luxury we think we can’t afford. But an informed citizenry can brush up on “the three simple proofs” of Aristotle to judge the elements of an effective speech that point to a leader’s ability to lead. His speeches should include information for weighing and judging arguments, reinforce his credibility based on character and knowledge — all to stir the masses to action with passion and emotion. You don’t have to examine the history of presidential rhetoric, as Mr. Lim has done, to conclude that the speeches of candidates and presidents are long on emotion and a bit short on information. We’re denied information that enables us to reason effectively. Candidates study polls and instinct carefully to feed audiences what they think they want to hear, tailoring their rhetoric to commonplace assumptions. There’s a growing separation between content and style — and simplification is the result.
“Simplifying rhetoric to make it more accessible to the average citizen is a laudable enterprise,” writes Mr. Lim, “but at some point simplification becomes oversimplification, and the line between the two is often difficult to define, especially in a polity committed to democracy.” Good leaders can make good teachers. Think FDR, who saw the White House reporters as his pupils, the meeting room as his schoolroom. He was a wily politician, and he knew the importance of education as his power of persuasion. When he famously conducted “fireside chats” during World War II, he asked his listeners to get out their maps to see where the battles were taking place. Rhetoric was used to educate.
William Safire, in his Political Dictionary, reminds us that the word “candidate” has the same root as “candor” and “incandescence.” Today’s political rhetoric is heavy on bombast and bloviation, if not necessarily incandescence. It rallies support and scorches the opposition in pursuit of molding the minds of the multitudes. Maybe politicians can take a little time to persuade us to reason together.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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