Monday, February 15, 2010

If it's not working, keep talking

The Tiger Woods recent televised confessional contained a revelation for me. There was nothing intriguing about the props, aside from the fact that his wife wasn't there. The content wasn't especially novel. The way of delivery wasn't anything new either. Mere days later, President Obama used the same method in his weekly internet address to flog his increasingly stale health care revamp. Now Obama didn't have an audience of potted plants like Woods, but perhaps he could have used Michelle to give him a big smoochie teary kiss, like Woods got from Mom. One might think, gosh, somebody loves this guy, so his health care plan can't be so bad. That, at least, would have spiced up yet another plodding dull Marxist/Leninist Health Care 101 lecture.

The thing that struck me is how the set piece speech is now almost worthless as communication device on great issues. The heavy scripting has so reduced the information value, that it's no wonder most Americans have little interest or time to waste on these artifacts of the past. In a world on twitter, we only want the most important fact and it must be conveyed in the shortest possible form. Lies, dodges and evasions seem ever more blatant. Even a day later Obama could put no price tag on his increasingly costly boondoggle. A trillion? two trillion? The CBO cannot even venture a guess at the final cost of Obamacare.

So with these speeches, airy generalities and verbose phrases begin to seem not dull, but offensive, as if someone is committing a crime. Interruption becomes a necessity. Joe Wilson may be pioneer in this sense. Some would say this exposes an obvious loss in civility and this probably is true, but should one willing be silent for such drivel? I guess the tactful path would be not even to bother showing up. If someone is going to, at best use you as a prop or at worst lie with your seeming approval, then absence is probably warranted.

The Republicans now face such a choice with the Obama Tax Increase Commission and the Health care negotiations. If they want join Obama in land of vague babble and lies, they can and may gain something from it, though what I cannot fathom. Whatever they decide, the obvious manipulated nature of these things means like the set piece speech, the script has already been written. A beginning, middle and end has been drafted and the Republicans simply have to show up. Does anyone think the Republicans get the role of the good guys in this production?

The opposition party has a duty only to oppose, nothing more. Plans are laid out, so that America has an idea of an alternative path, but the job of passing the agenda lies in the majority. The fetish of bipartisanship as a goal in itself embraces only imbecility. If one side simply caves to the other, that's not America. That's Hitlers' Germany, Chavezs' Venezuela or Castros' Cuba. As Lloyd Cutler used to say " America was founded by dissidents and smugglers" Why should we lose our independence and our probing minds for something of undefined effect and with untold cost?

At the bottom line, America has thrived on substance. Yes, we've had lots of pretty words along the way, but all words that meant something had a direct substantive effect. In other words, they were almost mathematical in their precision and scope. The Gettyburg Address, FDRs' Pearl Harbor speech, JFKs' go to the Moon speech and Reagans' Tear down this Wall speech. All described the state of affairs, a plain goal and a way to reach it. The goals may have been extremely hard to reach, but the stakes were acknowledged and the speeches lent solemnity to decisions that almost all felt must be made. The humanity of these individuals shines through those speeches because the purpose rang true. How was this so? Those were all set piece speeches and yet any one of them has the sense, the feel of an intimate almost extemporaneous conversation. Tiger Woods and President Obama give speeches drenched in artifice, pretense and simulation. The speeches of Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan and FDR had no need or time for pretense. The enormous issues of their day were duly understood and confronted with speeches that were not only well made, but direly needed.

Perhaps I mourn for the loss of such speeches. Almost three decades ago Walter Ong noted the rise of secondary orality, speech based only on written words. Long before "talking points" became household words, Ong noted this shift and something else. There was still a desire or perhaps need for primary orality or speech alone with no props or printed words or reminders. Obama himself decries talking points in speeches and yet that negative attitude about the medium is now a talking point. This is why the speeches of our ancestors have vanished. We have speeches exclusively about speeches. This serves only as cover or concealment for an agenda most people don't want.

When we see reversion to the primary oral form, the truth can be revealed quickly in resonant fashion. Think of two examples from the 2008 campaign. Obama's "share the wealth" comment revealed a decided Marxist/Leninist bent, now proudly displayed. The possessors (i.e whoever is the target that day) should tithe, donate, invest, etc . . . to the disposed. The dictatorship of the Politically Correct decide how resources of the society are to be allotted, not the individual or the merits of ability. Yes, Comrade, central control is best for all.

While John McCain had many more revealing unscripted moments, his snap decision to suspend his campaign revealed his primary orality actually seemed to dictate his decisions. The stream of conscious oral formulation gave McCain an appeal, but showed a mind heavily influenced by intuition. In the chaotic environment of the fall of 2008, this characteristic reflected poorly on him and he subsequently began a drop in the polls from which he never recovered.

For Obama, talk is the goal in itself, until someone else caves or something else happens. This almost mimics a pick up artist at party. He works the room until a willing accomplice is found or prospects dry up and he goes to another party. Above all for Obama, if it's not working, keep talking. The Narrative (I predict this word will eventually be as loathsome as "mission statement") must be continually pushed to dominate the national discourse and to stiffen the spine of an increasingly wobbly Democratic Party, that perhaps is not sold on the idea of Obama running for re-election in 2012. Unfortunately, dullness has set in. President Obama has become one long boring ineffectual scold. In the age of Twitter, this President is digging his own political grave, unless Republicans decide to help dig him out. They would be better served to let him keep talking.