Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Running for the presidency with art, style, and grammar

Posted by metaphorical on 8 February 2007

In one sentence, with no more than two dependent clauses, tell me why you would make a great president. —Maureen Dowd, to Joe Biden

Maureen Dowd gave Biden a gentle tweaking yesterday, letting him off the hook, at least for one interview, on the Obama business (see this blog’s prior discussion of it here, and a nice job by Jupiter9 here).

What she gently gets at, though, is another important question: how much do we we want to hear from a presidential candidate on the great issues of the day, and how should it be expressed?

Biden is known for being prolix; he further has a difficulty keeping his answers from slipping into the reliably soporific dialect of English known as Beltway-speak. It was this latter problem that got him into trouble on the Obama matter; he was analyzing his opponent in much the same way a campaign media advisor would. That’s just not how you want to talk to national journalists who are going to be quoting you in general-circulation publications.

But the first problem is worth considering as well.

“We’re in a political culture where everything is reduced to bumper stickers and sound bites, and it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Biden told Dowd. That’s when Dowd wittily tried to restrict the number of dependent clauses in his answer to the question of what would make him a great president.

“I really believe the American people get the fact that with the next president there’s no margin for error. He’s going to inherit a world and a nation where this guy is going to leave him in a deep hole. The next president should get us out of Iraq without ruining the Middle East, so Americans should be looking for the person with the most experience.

Biden failed the test of answering in one sentence, and that’s a problem. Politics isn’t so different from literature, where it’s important to be able to express the one thing a work is most centrally about. This was effectively satirized by Woody Allen when he joked, “I took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.”

But it’s important to be able to reduce a story to its bare essence, with no more than two clauses, even if it should turn out to be a cliché (e.g., Miles comes to accept himself and can thereby accept the love of another— the movie Sideways).

With that in mind, let’s look at Biden’s summary, even allowing it to meander for three whole sentences.

The first isn’t so much of a cliché as non sequitur; it’s about the presidency itself and says nothing about what distinguishes Biden or his candidacy. The second does the same, and slips into Beltway-speak as well, where the identification of “this guy,” with no prior referent, has to be made in the listener’s mind as George Bush.

In the third sentence Biden finally talks about himself, but in terms of a lone implicit qualification: he’s the most experienced. Have any of our recent presidents been the most experienced? In my lifetime, LBJ, Nixon, and Bush I arguably were, with mixed results there. Is experience so very important? Not, apparently, in the minds of the public. Reagan was less experienced than Ford, Bush II less than Gore, and so on. It’s not even clear Biden is the most experienced in this race, and he certainly won’t be if Gore jumps in. Does he really want to stake his candidacy in such muddy soil?

Biden will fail, and he should fail, because he doesn’t have a coherent story to tell the public about himself. To think of that as merely a PR problem is to miss the difference between Cicero and Karl Rove. A great candidacy has to be a bit like a great work of literature, with broad contours that are easy to understand, a beginning that draws you in, a memorable story, and problems that are overcome by a central character who we come to care for and respect. Obama’s candidacy might turn out to have all those things. Even Hillary’s candidacy might just come to have them. Biden’s will not.

2 Responses to “Running for the presidency with art, style, and grammar”

  1. Very insightful…I always liked Biden when he was on Bill Maher’s show…but I think you’re right…he has no chance…and if he can’t answer Dowd’s questions…he needs to step aside.

  2. The problem with Joe Biden, and let’s be honest it’s a problem with a lot of politicians both in and out of both Washington DC and the even United States itself, is that they have a tendency to fall in love with the sound of their own voice to the point that they become physically incapable of offering a simple answer to a simple question without going off on a meandering tour of other issues which often have no relevance to the issue at hand.

    Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal. Come back next time and I’ll treat you to my O-bama-lama-ding-dong impression.

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