Paul Greenberg

Sometimes what says most about a country, a society, and an age isn't what happens in the news but what doesn't. For example:

When the president of the United States spoke at Notre Dame the other Sunday, he didn't so much speak about abortion as around it. He finessed the whole troubling issue by saying he hoped we could all agree to find common ground between ... what, exactly? Pro-choice and pro-life? Abortion and opposition to it? Good and evil?

Barack Obama settled for suggesting that we all do the best we can, like supporting adoption and new mothers. Who would take issue with that? There's no way to disagree with a stand not taken. And yet what he said seemed to strike a chord. Never underestimate the power of the platitudinous.

People really don't want to be troubled by all that business anyway. When a president declines to take a stand on some great issue, it may come as a kind of relief. Especially if he can make moral neutrality sound elevated, statesmanlike, above-the-fray. Let's all just calm down and put this issue in perspective. It's only a matter of life and death.

Many a politician has had a highly successful career avoiding the basic issues in the most appealing, articulate way. Some manage to get by with it their whole lives, and are even acclaimed for it. Why not just put off the really tough questions forever? Maybe they'll go away.

Consider how long Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant of American politics in his time, managed to evade the moral ramifications of the slavery issue, which threatened to tear the Union apart (and eventually did). Sen. Douglas dodged the issue with verve and style year after year -- till events and an ungainly Whig lawyer out of Springfield, Ill., caught up with him. Some questions just will not be evaded forever.

But some politicians are very good at soft-pedaling the great questions of their time. Only after the applause had died away at Notre Dame and the president was on the way to his next photo-op might it have occurred to anyone to wonder why, if his speech there had been so effective, it left behind a vague sense of dissatisfaction. As if he hadn't really addressed the question. Indeed, that's the rhetorician's term for this technique: begging the question. And it can be done in style.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.