Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 27, 1998 / 29 Tevet, 5758
State of the president: hollow rhetoric
FOR THE FIFTH TIME, America will be treated to a State of the Union address by William Jefferson Clinton. That the Republic will endure demonstrates just how inured we are to ennui.
In her new book, Simply Speaking: How to Communicate Your Ideas With Style, Substance and Clarity, Peggy Noonan offers a penetrating analysis of a president whose rhetoric embodies none of the above. Noonan sets down a general rule for aspiring speakers: "You cannot say something banal in a truly interesting way."
There are only so many ways to say "pass the butter," Ronald Reagan's speech-writer observes. "The more ornate and highly stylized you get -- 'How I desire to have within my grasp the yellow fatted food that so compliments the taste of bread' -- the more foolish you sound."
Noonan calls Clinton's second Inaugural Address a "cavalcade of cliches." "Perhaps he calculated that if he just said sort-of pretty phrases, it would sound as if he were communicating big thoughts. But he wasn't."
After complimenting his stump style ("He has a natural warmth and an ease with words"), Noonan notes: "Clinton's biggest problem as a speaker is that he rarely says anything that is intellectually interesting, that is genuinely deep and thoughtful. He has the intensity of a deep and thoughtful person without the depth of a deep and thoughtful person."
His 1997 snooze of the union was a puddle at low tide. "My fellow Americans, the state of our union is strong, but we must rise to the decisive moment, to make a nation and a world better than any we have ever known.
"We must be shapers of events, not observers. For if we do not act, the moment will pass -- and we will lose the best possibilities for our future." Has a call for action ever been issued with less imagination?
But the stultification continued. "The spirit we bring to our work will determine our success." No, really! "We must all be committed to the pursuit of opportunity for all Americans, and responsibility for all Americans, in a community of all Americans." The president thus took three lovely concepts -- opportunity, responsibility and community -- and gave them the passion and eloquence of "pass the butter."
The address set forth some policies: campaign-finance reform, tax credits for businesses that hire off the welfare rolls, restoration of government benefits to legal immigrants, more spending on school buildings and volunteers to teach reading to the "40 percent of eighth-graders who cannot read on their own" (in plain English, those that are illiterate).
The advisability of these initiatives aside, it's difficult to imagine their presentation in more flaccid prose: "I challenge every state: Turn those welfare checks into private sector paychecks." Not to give government alms to legal aliens "is simply unworthy of a great nation of immigrants." "The point (in national education standards) is not to put our children down, but to lift them up." "We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down."
And, in the words of the founder of Faber College (from "Animal House"), "Knowledge is good."
When the president groped for originality, the results were embarrassing ("In a truly open market, we can out-compete anyone in the world.") At times, his rhetoric was nonsensical, as when he intoned, "We must never believe that diversity is a weakness -- it is our greatest strength."
Now, it would have been fine if the president had simply said, "Look, we have differences and conflicts, but we must try to get along." But when in the course of human history have racial/ethnic divisions made a nation more cohesive?
This is nearly as fatuous as Clinton's prescription for affirmative action -- "Mend it; don't end it." Repair implies dysfunction. How is it broken? How can it be fixed? No explanation here. That it rhymes and sounds earnest is enough. Never expect substance from this huckster.
Think of the great orators of the English language -- Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan (men who built cathedrals with words). They were eloquent, provocative, moving, because they had something significant to say, something they believed in fervently. The essence of emptiness, Clinton's words ring hollow because they issue from a hollow chest.
After I once spoke in Chicago, a young rabbi told me that the Talmud says, "Words spoken from the heart enter the hearts of listeners." Which leads one to wonder about the ultimate destination of Clinton's
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