BY BARTON SWAIM
Over the last half-century, I would guess — maybe since Adlai Stevenson — American political oratory has degenerated into a consultant-driven pseudo-science. The task is to “hit” certain “themes” for a variety of constituencies, or to attack one’s opponent for such-and-such without sounding as though you believe the other thing.
Generally left out of process is any appreciation for language itself and what it can do. The typical American political speech — and this is true at very high levels of government — relies almost exclusively on standard phrasing, trite metaphors and bad jokes.
I can really only think of one major counter-example, and the mere mention of him in this context will drive some readers to stop reading. It’s still true that George W. Bush, famously prone to idiotic malapropisms and unintentionally hilarious infelicities, was responsible for at least two phrases that have stayed with us: “soft bigotry of low expectations” and “axis of evil.”
Both phrases captured precisely the thought the president wanted to express in the addresses in which they appeared (his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention and his speech to a joint session of Congress in October 2001, respectively). Both elicited the kinds of debates that, for good or ill, Bush and his aides wanted Americans to have — the first about education policy, the second about state sponsorship of terrorism.
The great majority of American politicians, by contrast — very much including Barack Obama — don’t try very hard at all to use language to their advantage. They use their personal magnetism, their warmth, their ability to “connect”; they use sincere whispering or impassioned shouting. But they don’t, typically, use language itself. Name a recent political speech (excluding ones generated by the current race) in which you heard a line that has stayed with you.
There are a few, but only a few.
As I listened to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, though, I thought I heard attempts to use language itself to stir and provoke. Perhaps that’s because, like Bush, she isn’t a gifted orator. Her manner is wooden, her enunciation angular, and everything she says sounds (to my ear anyway) about a half-tone sharp. I wonder, then, if she has rightly concluded that she must rely on the words themselves.
True, the first part of the speech included some pretty hokey instances of wordplay. “We heard from the man from Hope, Bill Clinton. And we heard from the man of Hope, Barack Obama.” (Not just hokey but overdone, that one. I am not comfortable at all with giving the current president, or any politician, the messianic title “man of hope.”) And this, about the American revolution: “Some wanted to stick with the King. Some wanted to stick it to the king.” Well, okay.
Then, though, there were lines that had a snap to them, lines that roll off the tongue and might — might — stick in the memory. Her priority as president will be to bring opportunity, “especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind, from our inner cities to our small towns, from Indian Country to Coal Country.”
It’s not Churchill, but one appreciates the attempt to find distinctive phrasing.
Then there was this: “It’s wrong to take tax breaks with one hand and give out pink slips with the other.” That is a terrific line. It may help that, as a conservative who opposes corporate welfare in all its wretched forms, I happen to agree with the sentiment behind it, but the image definitely works.
Less philosophically sound, for me at least, was the quip criticizing Donald Trump for allowing his companies to outsource manufacturing jobs: “Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again. Well, he could start by actually making things in America again.” Still, the line took some thought. I can almost see Clinton’s speechwriter, whoever he or she is, staring blankly at a laptop screen for hours and then suddenly thinking, Yes: make America great, make things in America.
The speech’s best line, to my mind, was similarly about Trump. (He does tend to draw out the best in writers, somehow.) “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” The line reads beautifully: All but the last two words are monosyllables, and that staccato phrase “bait with a tweet” has a terrific snap to it.
Best of all: The line’s content is both true and terrifying.
In a sense, all this gives me pain to write. On political grounds I dislike Hillary Clinton very much, and have disliked her for 25 years. Even in this admittedly well-wrought speech, there were false moments, as one would have expected: “The truth is,” she intoned at one point, “through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.” Right.
It was an excellent speech, all the same. Perhaps I find that easier to admit since I find her Republican adversary (though for different reasons) equally loathsome. In any case, in Clinton’s acceptance speech we heard something rare in American politics — a politician letting language do its job.
Barton Swaim, the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics,” is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. He was a speechwriter for former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.