Friday, January 23, 2004

Steroids and the Screech

Two examples from this past week serve to show the defects of our rhetorical system.

First, George Bush's mention of steroids in baseball during the State of the Union address was inappropriate. Generally, it's laudable for a president to take a swipe at bad behavior among people whom children admire. But there must be a better way to do it than in the State of the Union Address. It was all rather schoolmarmish and out of place. Perhaps Bush could have saved his remarks for when he hosts T-ball on the South Lawn with cute, pre-Little League children. There his rhetoric would be more appropriate and more effective. Could no high-priced handler, P.R. advisor, hotshot Ivy League speech-writer, or Karl Rove himself orchestrate these things better?

What characterizes the "rhetorical presidency" is not simply too much talk or too much demagoguery (although that is certainly part of it), but also a lack of skill in making points and arguments, a lack of understanding of what is appropriate for each situation and occasion. Current rhetoric oscillates between sheer demagoguery (which Bush's speech mostly avoided) and boring, uninspiring laundry lists of problems or proposals (into which it lapsed).

Next, we have Howard Dean's "screech." Undoubtedly overcome by his unexpected and disappointing third-place finish in Iowa, Dean tried to rally his troops -- and himself -- by hooting and hollering. Many have complained that he didn't look or sound presidential. But no aspect of our horrible selection process makes the candidates look presidential, the most glaring example of which is Dean's screech; in fact the process encourages behavior like Dean's. What can we expect from someone who desperately wants to be president and is responsible for directly appealing to voters to reach his goal? I have no particular affection for Howard Dean and what he stands for, but it must be recognized that institutions and processes shape behavior. Accordingly, I view Dean almost as much a victim of an insane process as anything else. Sure, he could have and should have kept his cool. But we're not being honest if we think that our selection process with its premium on direct public appeals doesn't bring out the worst in people and degrade our republic.

One last note on this theme. In today's WSJ, we have a kind of "discourse on leadership" by the esteemed former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. In handicapping the Democrats currently in the race, Welch dismisses Joe Lieberman for not being "zealous" enough and for being too "contemplative." And I thought the WSJ and guys like Jack Welch were fundamentally conservative. So much for the crusty old CEO; now it's the therapist-CEO blathering on about "emotional quotients".

So, for Welch, Dean's screech is a bit much, but it's preferable to Lieberman's self-control. We have now arrived at a juncture where sobriety has lost respect. Can any republic survive much past that point?


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