Un-Gifted Storytellers

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I have some liking for mysteries that will probably never be solved. What, if anything, is buried on Oak Island? What happened to the glorious Amber Room? What happened to Judge Crater? What happened to Peking Man? I have less liking for them when they’re verbal mysteries, particularly the type that Dr. Johnson had in mind when he mentioned words of which “the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found.”

I should have taken that passage from Johnson’s Life of Milton as a warning, before I tried to figure out what Hunter Biden did in the Navy (until he got kicked out). The Washington Times reported on this. It quoted documents saying, apparently as plainly as the Navy can say things, what his job was.

Under a heading “Primary/Collateral/Watchstanding Duties,” the file states Mr. Biden is a “deployable public affairs officer” who “provides public affairs/strategic communications support” to, among other officers, the chief of information at the Pentagon, the Navy’s public affairs headquarters at the Pentagon.

Mr. Biden’s duties included providing support to 6th and 5th Fleets and “regional commanders.”

So he was, maybe, probably, a PR hack? But just when you think you’ve got the answer, and that’s it, the Navy hits you with a slash. “Public affairs/strategic communications support” — is that two things or one? And what, I hesitate to ask, is strategic about public affairs? Is there a strategy to fool the public? If so, then it’s been successfully exerted on me, because you could give me almost any interpretation of those words, and I would entertain it.

There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood.

Heedless of Johnson’s hint not to bother seeking meanings in words like these, I turned to the Navy’s first “periodic fitness report” on the heir to the House of Biden, and found a statement of his “command achievements,” which were as follows:

Provides expeditionary public affairs forces supporting the fleet and component commanders with scalable and immediately deployable force packages trained and equipped to support current and emerging public affairs and visual information requirements.

Steering around a wreck on the edge of the highway, you’ve probably been astonished by the fact that the vehicle was so badly damaged that you couldn’t tell what was the trunk and what was the hood, and whatever could have happened to the roof. That’s what we’re seeing here. There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood. If you’re a fool like me, you keep asking, “What are expeditionary public affairs forces?”; “What’s a force package, and how are such things trained?”; “What’s scalable about these force packages?”; “How do you support a requirement?” You’re welcome to keep asking. You’re not going to find out.

Perhaps there’s a Navy Department dictionary that reduces the infinite range of possible meanings to only a few, no matter how dopey: “Visual information requirement: (1) a rule for the use of gestures; (2) a rule for stenciling words on windows; (3) a stop light.” Perhaps there’s a Navy style sheet that tells Deployable Public Affairs Officers how to navigate this vocabulary and syntax. But if there is, the mystery remains: how on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

Trump meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

I’m talking about true mysteries, which I need to distinguish from such phenomena as President Trump’s curious form of discourse, which consists largely of disconnected sentences, parts of which he repeats several times, as if obsessed. There’s nothing amazing about this: he just isn’t interested in organizing his thoughts or considering other ways of emphasizing them. Any child can, and many children do, talk like the president, and any child can understand what’s going on with that.

Nor is there any mystery about why politicians say amazingly childish things about history. On January 10, President Trump told Laura Ingraham that “Nancy Pelosi will probably go down in history as the least effective speaker of the House of Representatives.” Oh, what did he mean? Less effective than James Lawrence Orr? Less effective than Galusha A. Grow? Less effective even than Theodore Medad Pomeroy? No, that’s not what he meant; he never heard of any of them. He just wanted to say something bad. He meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

Neither is there any deep mystery about Hillary Clinton criticizing Bernie Sanders for being “a career politician,” as if anybody thought that she was anything other than that. She isn’t interested in what other people think. If she had any interest, she would have won the election.

How on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

There isn’t much mystery behind the New York Times’ endorsement of Elizabeth Warren for president — along with the hapless Amy Klobuchar. There were oddities, of course, including the spectacle of the Times’ complimenting Warren, who is best known for retailing absurd lies about herself, as “a gifted storyteller.” Who would even think of saying such a thing, knowing that everyone else would laugh it to scorn? The answer is that the NYT cannot conceive of being laughed to scorn. It endorsed Warren because it has always loved her to death; it endorsed Klobuchar as a nod to the millions of heartland voters that it imagines are out there, clamoring for the election of this favorite daughter. The Times doesn’t want to be out of touch! But who’s on the staff of the NYT?The Times wouldn’t have a staff if it weren’t for (A) descendants of Eastern wealth and (B) people who couldn’t wait to leave the Midwest because they hated it and saw that it ignored their hatred. For generations, this has been The New York Times. So, from its point of view, Amy Klobuchar is a preeminent statesman and Elizabeth Warren is a gifted storyteller.

There is also very little true mystery about the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they are bugging out of the royal responsibilities that have given their sorry lives whatever dignity they possess:

We intend to step back as “senior” members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.

We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages.

This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.

Queen Elizabeth certainly isn’t wrinkling her brow, trying to figure just how much “support” she’s going to get from the likes of them, and I doubt that anyone they may be addressing as “you” is thinking, “Hmmm . . . That’s strange. I can’t recall ever encouraging them to do anything. But if they say so, then I guess I did.” I also doubt that anyone will miss the unconscious joke in the first and last sentences of that passage from the royal missive: these people are going to work to become financially independent, and the work they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

It's true, there are some mysteries around the edges, such as what the Duke of Sussex could possibly have meant when he gave a speech in which said that he and his wife hoped “to continue serving the queen . . . without public funding” but found it “wasn’t possible.” I’m sure that doesn’t mean they’d always wanted to give the poor old dear a few quid but just didn’t have it, y’know. But if it doesn’t mean that, I can’t guess what it means. Neither do I know why, after having been given the best education that money and social origin could buy, the Duke never learned his pronoun cases: “The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back . . .” But . . . well, after all . . . who cares what he says?

These people are going to work to become financially independent, and the "work" they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

Yet fascinatingly repellent mysteries still abound — and I’m glad the aforesaid Nancy Pelosi is here to provide them, because lately, I’ve lost some of my most important sources of mystery: Beto O’Rourke (what made him think he should be president?), Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker (maybe it was “racism” that kept them from getting enough money to stay in the presidential tournament, but who would give them any money to start with?). True, there remains the mystery of Tom Steyer: what could he mean when he says in his omnipresent ads that Congress will never authorize action against climate change, so he, President Steyer, will have to do it on his own? Well, how? Could he be proclaiming a coup? Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway. A man of mystery . . . but face it, he’s not much fun. (If you want picturesque details about the Cromwell episode, a wiki page does a good job; see and look for the account of Thomas Salmon.)

So right now, Pelosi is my favorite weaver of mysteries. Here’s what she said in one of her constant press conferences about why she delayed sending the impeachment documents to the Senate. It’s her attempt to explain the unexplainable. I’m sorry, you need to see it in extenso:

This is a very important day for us. As you know I referenced temporal markers that our founders and our poets and others have used over time to place us in time, to emphasize the importance of time, because everything is about time.

Because everything is about time — how we use it, how we mark it. And today is an important day because today is the day that we name the managers, we go to the floor to pass the resolution to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, and later in the day, when we have our engrossment, that we march those articles of impeachment to the United States Senate.

As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary” — when.

Abraham Lincoln – “Four score and seven years ago.”

Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men's souls.”

Again and again, even our poets, Longfellow — "Listen, my children and you will hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. / On the 18th of April 1775 / Hardly a man is now alive /That remembers that famous day and year."

It's always about marking history, using time. On December 18th, the House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States. An impeachment that will last forever.

Since December 18th, there have been comments about when are we going to send the articles over. Well, we had hoped that the courtesy would be extended that we would have seen what the process would be in the Senate.

Short of that, the time has revealed many things since then. Time has been our friend in all of this because it has yielded incriminating evidence, more truth into the public domain.

There’s something wrong about the transcription of Pelosi’s remarks. She didn’t say “1775”; she said, “’75,” which is what the Longfellow poem says. Otherwise it wouldn’t scan. So she got that right. The rest — did you ever see such a mess?

It would be useless to be a smartass. It would be useless to ask Pelosi, “If time is your friend, why don’t you wait till next New Years to start the ceremonies? Then maybe you’ll have even more ‘incriminating evidence.’” It would be useless to ask, “Did you mean it when you said that everything is about time? And if you meant that, what does it mean? Does it mean that I should or shouldn’t get my air conditioner fixed this week?” “You’re always bragging about your Catholic education. Weren’t you taught that there’s a difference between things that exist in time and things that exist forever? They’re actually opposed, and impeachment is on the ‘time’ rather than the ‘forever’ side.” “Do you really grasp the fact that the dispute you are supposedly addressing is not about whether time exists or whether time is important or whether time should be used; it’s about how the hell you’ve been using it?”

Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway.

There are many additional smartass, I mean obvious, questions with which one could probe the mystery of what she thinks she’s talking about. But suppose she tried to answer them, or even one of them. Do you imagine that anything she said would make more sense than anything she said the first time? And that was supposed to be an explanation!

Earlier, I used the image of a car wreck. Now another image comes to mind. You’re waiting in an airport, and an elderly person sits down next to you and starts talking about the word “when.” She says things like, “As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary’ — when.” She goes on and on. At first you struggle to appear respectful. Then you start gathering your things and looking for another chair. As you make your escape, she’s still babbling uncontrollably.

That’s her all right — with just one difference. There’s no escape from Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the United States.




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Comments

Robert H. Miller

A great and insightful commentary. However...I'm disappointed. Pelosi's long rant, quoted toward the end, deserves many more pages of analysis, the sort of ironic line-by-line analysis at which Professor Cox is expert. Stephen, don't hold back!

Visitor

"I’m talking about true mysteries, which I need to distinguish from such phenomena as President Trump’s curious form of discourse, which consists largely of disconnected sentences, parts of which he repeats several times, as if obsessed. There’s nothing amazing about this: he just isn’t interested in organizing his thoughts or considering other ways of emphasizing them."

Not a fair characterization. Maybe listen to a speech by Trump all the way through?

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