- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The doldrums are hard upon us, and even billy goats are choking on trivia.

The New York Times is all atwitter over John McCain’s mispronunciation of “Lexington,” as in the Lexington Project, an energy plan and just the stuff to send the multitudes with attitude into the altitude of summer lassitude, where there’s not enough sweet tea to soothe all the parched lips, dry throats and other afflictions of those foolish enough to join the English in the midday sun.

“In a town meeting in Cincinnati the [other] day,” the New York Times reports, “Mr. McCain would again slip up on the name of the Massachusetts town where, he noted, ‘Americans asserted their independence once before.’ He called it “the Lexiggdon Project, and twice tried to fix his error, before flipping the name (‘Project Lexington’) in subsequent references.”

Mr. McCain, the newspaper discovered, is battling “a nemesis, the Teleprompter.” If he can’t whip a Teleprompter, the subtext surely goes, how can we expect him to whip a jack Muslim plotting a mission for the medium-sized Satan?

By his own admission, the one-time fighter pilot is not a great orator. He’s slight of stature, often half-hidden behind a lectern, reads his lines and often not very well, and here’s the point of the Page One story: “Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, can often dazzle on stage.” You could ask any dazzled reporter on the campaign plane.

He’s right about Sen. Obama. The man can keep an audience awake and ready to rock and roll. He’s helped by the fact that the generation most dazzled has rarely been inside a church, never heard a preacher at a brush-arbor revival, raising the hair on the backs of a thousand necks, with soaring oratory to chase angels across the rafters of a rough-hewn tabernacle or rustling the tent flaps to the tune of “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound” and the plaintive notes of “Just As I Am (Without One Plea).” But as good as Sen. Obama is, there may be a preacher or two in any good-sized city who could show him how to lift a crowd of sinners aloft to touch the face of God.

Once upon a time, you didn’t have to go to church to hear oratory like this. The politicians could do it, too. Billy Graham once remarked that Bill Clinton got the gift, and would have been great on the sawdust. But the great evangelist could have been talking about Bubba’s gift for recognizing sin when he sampled it. Opportunity knocks.

Sitting presidents, like presidential candidates, are often prey to tangling their tongues in hot syntax. President Eisenhower was famous for garbling an answer to the easiest question, usually a question he didn’t want to answer. Sometimes a garble is the most effective reply. John F. Kennedy might not have frightened Fidel Castro, but he set a lot of teeth on edge with his pronunciation of “Cuber.” Jimmy Carter, like George W., never mastered (among a lot of other things) how to pronounce “nuclear.”

But it’s not so much the mispronunciations and verbal tics that occupy the Gaffe Patrol as the determination of the chattering class to eliminate the colorful and the clever in candidates’ speeches and remarks. The Gaffe Patrol is determined to make the politics as dull and boring as their own copy, you might say. Mr. McCain’s aides, who take what they read in the newspaper and hear on television seriously even if nobody else does, are doing all they can to teach him how to put everyone to sleep. John McCain’s clever dismissal of Barack Obama’s ability to give good speech - “With his very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues, Sen. Obama has been very successful” - sent aides into passionate paralysis. They want no more wisecracks, no more biting sarcasm, no more humor. They think what the galleries want are position papers, policy reviews and learned discussion of worthwhile initiatives.

Mr. McCain might take a cue from one of the great Southern hams of yesteryear who had aroused the ire of his opponent, a starchy Presbyterian elder, and the temperance ladies with his fondness for a nip of freshly distilled corn. “I want everybody who has never never slipped behind the barn for a nip to warm a cold day to vote for my opponent,” he said. “If you can recall the taste of good corn whisky, vote for me.” A lot of those folks would have had trouble with “Lexxiggdon,” too. They might not regard it as a felony.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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