Words, Words, Words: The Decline of American Eloquence

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 25, 2008 12:01 AM
Words, Words, Words: The Decline of American Eloquence

It was sad, watching the two remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination engage in a civil little sparring match Thursday night. Because it was hard not to note, once again, the long slow decline of political debate in this country since Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas thought out and fought out the great issues of their day. Those were real debates rather than a joint press conference.

I would rather have heard less from my colleagues in the ever-intrusive media and more from the candidates themselves. It would be a step up if the press weren't involved in these productions at all except to report and comment on them. Matters were better arranged in the series of seven great debates between Mr. Lincoln and Judge Douglas in 1858.

But it is useless to dream of returning to that style of political engagement. Man, homo faber, doesn't just shape his tools, they in turn shape his mind. And our technology, in this case, television, long ago turned presidential debates into a contest between competing applause lines. Result: Instead of thought, we get sound bites.

These days the best one can hope for is that we the people will see past the snappy rejoinders and associated razzmatazz, and compare the candidates themselves - their records, character, qualifications and promise as well as their positions on the issues. But that civic duty seems to get harder every presidential year as television whittles away at our collective attention span. The "progress" of political debate in this country from 1856 to 2008 might be enough to disprove any theory of evolution.

It was good to hear the memory of Barbara Jordan invoked Thursday night - at least three times by my count. She was one of the most inspiring orators of her time as well as a constitutional scholar of some note. Her rhetoric was soaring, but that doesn't mean it wasn't well grounded, too. It had the best of foundations: the Constitution of the United States.

Congresswoman, professor and mother courage, Barbara Jordan was a well of both thought and inspiration. She was the Mahalia Jackson of political rhetoric. She combined the best attributes of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, that is, an eye for the practical and an unswerving dedication to liberty.

Barbara Jordan was her own person - the very antithesis of groupthink. Her refusal to be pigeonholed by race or class or ideology was a constant refreshment, as was the love of the Constitution that permeated her every pronouncement. How she is missed. If only her party would produce a worthy successor. But that, too, is unlikely in these mediocre times for public speech.

In one of her less than astute moves, Hillary Clinton tried to dismiss Barack Obama's gift for rhetoric as just words. I would have loved to see her try that routine on Barbara Jordan; there wouldn't have been much of Sen. Clinton left after that. She'd have been blown away by the sheer force of Barbara Jordan's magnificent, inspiring, imperative words - and the heights to which they took anyone with the heart and soul and mind to be moved by them.

Never to have heard Barbara Jordan speak was to miss one of the great American experiences - educational and spiritual - of the 20th century. May her memory go beyond a politic invocation of her name. Here's hoping her spirit will be born again.

Hillary Clinton's low point during Thursday night's was clear to all: when she stuck with her silly charge of plagiarism against her opponent. It seems Barack Obama had borrowed a rhetorical device from a friend, supporter, and fellow governor (Deval Patrick in Massachusetts) to illustrate the power of words after Sen. Clinton had denigrated their importance in politics.

The only thing Sen. Obama had to do to make his case was to recite some familiar passages, like the Declaration of Independence. The power of those words is evident. Plagiarism? This was more a natural response from anybody with some polemical talent.

But poor Hillary Clinton kept trying to make a mountain out of her molehill. It's her accusation, however unfounded, and she's sticking with it. The audience didn't seem to buy it. There's something worse than fighting dirty in a hard-fought campaign, and that's fighting dumb.

American eloquence may be in decline, but most Americans still recognize that words have power, and the inspiration they provide shouldn't be underestimated. That was Hillary Clinton's big mistake. In a way, it's been the big mistake of her whole campaign. She seems to have no feel at all for the poetry of politics.