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
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
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
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.