John Cardinal Newman once set down a list of seven rules for writing sermons. His rules apply not just to sermons but to rhetoric in general. Simple and direct as his rules were in the 19th century, naturally they have fallen into neglect in our era of flash and fizz.
American rhetoric circa 2013 has come to have all the eloquence and permanence of your average television commercial. Our politicians' speeches now have the staying power of fleeting images in the background. Then they are gone. Like last week's inaugural address.
Whatever the state of the Union, the state of American rhetoric is not only poor but poor in the worst, that is, showiest way. In place of eloquence, which is rare enough in any age, we get tendentious talking points. Maybe that's because the basis of any eloquence seems to have disappeared in our public rhetoric: thought.
Last week's Inaugural address, if anyone was listening then or bothers to remember it now, systematically ignored all of Newman's rules. It was as if our newly re-inaugurated president had gone down the cardinal's list and violated them one by one -- if he has ever heard of them. It was a safe assumption, judging by his speech, that his speechwriters hadn't. Maybe somebody should post a copy of Newman's Seven Commandments in their office:
1. A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write, not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.
The only evidently earnest thing about this president's Second Inaugural, which will be remembered, if at all, as a parody of Lincoln's, was its earnest desire to please every special-interest group he had already pleased during his campaign -- from the gun-control lobby to the greener-than-thou crowd. And so many more. Their various grievances may or may not be justified, their profuse proposals sound or unsound, but that didn't seem to be the point of the president's speech. He seemed interested only in echoing his supporters' demands, and in so doing, bind them even closer to him. That is not leadership or thought; it is just low cunning. Political ambition so often is.
2. He should never aim to be eloquent.
To judge by his text, the president aimed for little else. Last week's inaugural address seemed but a collection of applause lines, which were duly applauded by his more-than-admiring followers. For it was their fondest desires he sought to condense into the series of slogans that constituted his speech.