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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2000 / 3 Kislev, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Surreal: Politics and the American language

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT HAD TO HAPPEN. The lawyers were bound to take over. De Tocqueville had seen it coming: "The courts of justice are the visible organs by which the legal profession is enabled to control the democracy.''

So now a presidential election has been thrown into the courts, any number of them.

But how can this be? Al Gore said that, if only he were granted a recount, he would take "no legal action to contest the result.''

Naturally, he took legal action to contest the result.

What the vice president meant, of course, was that he would not contest the recount if he won it. The most important part of a political speech may be what is not said.

An innocent listener who heard the vice president's speech Monday night might be forgiven for thinking it was the Republicans who had delayed matters by taking their case to Florida's Supreme Court, prolonging the certification of the vote by two whole weeks, and were still challenging the count in court.

But did anybody ever believe that Al Gore would really give up if he lost the latest recount? Yet no one said so outright, lest analysis come too close to cynicism.

Besides, who thought Al Gore would lose the recount, too? The one genuine surprise of this post-campaign campaign has been that an operation headed by a latter-day Daley out of Chicago couldn't scare up a couple of thousand votes when needed. It is the lament of every generation: We are not the men our fathers were.

And so Al Gore's promise not to contest the recount, scarcely noted at the time, is scarcely remembered now. Because his insincerity is taken for granted.

What American politics needs is a kind of simultaneous translation that would make our politicians' meaning transparent at the time they speak, rather than later. Maybe it could be printed across the bottom of the screen, like the translation of a foreign film, whenever a presidential candidate addresses the nation.

It would have been interesting to have that kind of rolling commentary appear under Al Gore's words Monday night. Or Joe Lieberman's the night before. Or George W. Bush's immediately after he'd been certified. The translations would have been so much more interesting than the speeches.

Perhaps the most surreal performance of all was W.'s Sunday night, shortly after the recount was certified in Florida. Just as he pretended to be ahead in the popular vote right up till the election, now W. was pretending to be the president-elect. Maybe it'll work this time.

He didn't sound as if he were laying claim to the presidency but already had it. He looked presidential, at least to those for whom believing is seeing. And he sounded presidential, as if he were not still engaged in a struggle for the office but delivering his State of the Union speech. It was eerie:

"Republicans and Democrats agree that our seniors deserve a secure retirement and a prescription drug coverage in Medicare. Already there is some bipartisan groundwork on efforts to reform Social Security and Medicare. We have a duty to find common ground to reform these vital programs for the greatest generation and for future generations. Republicans and Democrats want a strong military ... .''

The platitudes flowed presidentially, defying memory and interest, as if the speaker were already addressing us from the Oval Office. The object of prudent presidential prose is to say things no one can recall, let alone object to.

Dwight Eisenhower used to go through his speechwriters' submissions on the lookout for memorable phrases to cross out. It's a wonder his classic phrase about the dangers of a military-industrial complex ever survived. Ike wasn't interested in stirring anybody up but in calming the country down. And he thought of great oratory as asking for trouble.

W., too, seems a natural at delivering forgettable prose. He even has Ike's way of cutting off the ends of his words, which makes not only his meaning but his speech blur into a soothing assurance.

Joe Lieberman also spoke as the political kaleidoscope swirled. And he illustrated why his honesty and individuality were almost universally respected -- before this campaign. Now his fine words came out like a suspect mist -- a full and fair count of every legally cast ballot ... every American's simple, sacred right to vote ... make a good-faith effort to count every vote ... the Constitution we are sworn to uphold ... America can and will fulfill its democratic values ... .

A simultaneous translation kept rolling on the screen: A full and fair count of every legally or even illegally cast ballot in three or four well-selected Florida counties. Every American's sacred right to vote unless he's serving overseas at the time. A good-faith effort to count every vote, including those of felons and the deceased. The Constitution we are sworn to uphold except when it gives state legislatures the authority to prescribe the manner in which that state's presidential electors are to be chosen. America can and will fulfill its democratic values even if a state Supreme Court has to rewrite the law to assure it.

Yes, it's quite a different speech once all the clinton clauses become visible. The fine phrases start to clot, the self-interest grows obvious.

George Orwell said it in his lucid essay on "Politics and the English Language'': "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns instinctively ... to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.''

As the election of 2000 spins on toward 2001, it occurs that Sen. Lieberman made a number of debatable assertions in his brief remarks. Let it be emphasized that they weren't untruthful assertions. Rather, they were the kind of half-truths sure to irritate those of us aware of the other half.

But at least one of the senator's contentions was just plain, flat wrong: "The campaign is over.'' On the contrary, the campaign continues with increased ardor, even desperation. And it makes use of many of the same techniques: pep rallies, speeches and the same, ubiquitous spin. Only lawsuits have been added.

All this striving for victory must in the end cheapen the prize. Which may be why all these speeches claiming victory would pale beside an honest concession.

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