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On Point

Kennedy and Robertson: Burned by Hot Buttons


by Austin Bay
January 10, 2006

Over Christmas, I reread several of Winston Churchill's speeches. Though over six decades old, Churchill's words still move, empower and inspire. Churchill mastered what rhetoricians call "emotional appeal and exhortation," yet he never ignored or glossed the harsh fact of Britain at war.

In his speech of May 13, 1940, he said: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering." Churchillian lines like these were the product of deep reflection and an acute, historically informed awareness of consequences. These serious words certainly fired Allied hearts and contributed to the defense of democracy.

Ancient Greek rhetoricians admired -- and feared -- powerful speakers who had the gift of emotional appeal and exhortation. My worn copy of "A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms" lists over 50 types of emotional appeals. From "amphidiorthosis" ("to hedge or qualify" a dangerous or bold position ) to "threnos" (a lament), thoughtful minds in the fourth century B.C. had analyzed every plea, supplication, ploy and gambit.

Yet there's strong evidence a healthy democracy requires rhetorical showmanship and convincing verbal drama. (Hesoid argued that effective justice also requires it, since a ruling judge must persuade aggrieved parties justice has been served and not partisan interest.)

The vernacular of government -- the wonk words, tech jargon, statistics, weasel-ese, endless qualifiers -- is a calculated patois of obscurity, deniability and sleep-inducing lethargy. The wily bureaucrat loves sleep, and this love goes well beyond his post-lunch nap. Boring bureaucratese, with paragraphs of passive verbs, helps keep the public snoozing.

Democracy, however, demands transparency, responsibility and energy. The Marines argue our common defense requires a few good men. A few good verbs and metaphors won't ensure good government, but debate and discussion energized by grand language further that goal.

However, hot rhetoric untethered by fact or untempered by reflection undermines debate.

Fortunately, these hot words often burn the unfettered and ill-tempered tongue that utters them.

Take the Rev. Pat Robertson as a recent example of "failure to reflect." When Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tragic stroke might be a divine rebuke for "dividing God's land," a wave of deserved scorn and ridicule swamped the silly man. The White House and The New York Times blasted Robertson, a right-left political condemnation of a right-wing ayatollah.

Idiocy isn't illegal, nor is lying -- at least, not if one lies in U.S. Senate hearings. Ted Kennedy provides the recent example of hot, emotion-stoking rhetoric untethered by truth.

On opening day of Judge Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Kennedy opened up with a faith-based fire Robertson might envy: "Judge Alito has not written one single opinion on the merits in favor of a person of color alleging racial discrimination on the job. In 15 years, not one."

Kennedy's statement is completely false. Alito found for plantiffs alleging racial discrimination on the job in several cases (for example, Zubi v. AT&T Corp. and Goosby v. Johnson & Johnson Medical).

Kennedy, possibly because of his status as a left-wing political ayatollah, has avoided Robertson's mass condemnation. His snake dance and sanctimony is as poisonous as the Rev. Robertson's, however, and perhaps more venomous, since his fib slanders Judge Alito.

Kennedy hasn't quite escaped. Duke University Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a left-wing legal scholar, begrudgingly admitted on Hugh Hewitt's radio program that Kennedy "was wrong. I'm not denying that."

Good for you, professor -- best not deny hard judicial fact.

Defenders of Robertson and Kennedy -- and who knows, there may be two or three out there -- could argue that both are "merely playing to their political base" by "pushing hot buttons" and "tossing red meat." Here's my lamentation: In contemporary politics, it seems flame raises more money than fact, and thus fund raising trumps truth, decency and common sense. Tactical politics dovetails with practical finances. The hot words are supposed "to drive the news day" and "hit the news cycle," feeding a "news machine" that thrives on sound-bites and glories in "gotcha."

Robertson was burned for his flame, and Kennedy should be. The likely burn in Kennedy's case is Alito's confirmation.

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