The old Reader’s Digest used to run a lot of one-page features, each with nine or ten little paragraphs of something vaguely related to a central theme. (If that reminds you of Word Watch, please think again.) There was “Humor in Uniform” — funny anecdotes about soldiers and sailors. There was “Life in These United States” — funny anecdotes about virtually anything. And there was something called “Toward More Picturesque Speech” — examples of colorful ways of saying things.
I thought about that feature at the end of last month, when Turner Classics ran Wells Fargo (1937), an historical-fiction movie. Captivated by the opening shot of an early railroad train jolting along toward a station full of excited people, I watched till the end. The movie was a sympathetic exposition of capitalist investment and innovation, though it offered few things as good as the train. But one thing was better. It was a scene in which an old mountain man lamented his failure to find gold in California. “I ain’t had no more luck,” he said, “than a duck with a doorknob.”
Now that, I thought, is picturesque speech.
Unfortunately, the humor in recent examples of the verbal picturesque is mostly unintended.
Such examples can be arranged in any order, so why not start with the Yahoo News report on the French election? There one learned that “François Hollande won the French presidential election on Sunday, capturing more than 51 percent of the vote.” Or, to put that in another way, “Sarkozy, who has held the French presidency since 2007, grabbed 48.1 percent.” Quite a picture. Sarkozy, we see, didn’t spend the past few years just being president; he spent them grimly holding the presidency. But Hollande found a way to break his hold, and captured a majority of the vote. Now, apparently, he’s waiting for an exchange of prisoners, because at the same time Sarkozy reached out his hairy hand and grabbed almost half the voters for himself!
Picturesque speech — and it isn’t a pretty picture. Be warned, however: this is the kind of picture that is going to be painted from now until November 6, election day in America. We’re going to hear a lot about how Nevada is up for grabs, Romney is scoring big in the Kentucky polls, Obama may deal Romney a punishing defeat in Missouri, Biden has doubled down on his anti-Romney rhetoric, and come next Tuesday the two campaigns will be gearing up for their moment of truth. “Come” is such a poetic substitute for “on,” isn’t it? And if you see a chance to combine a reference to gears with a bullfighting metaphor, well, chase after it, tiger. After all, this election is going down to the wire, and we’re all going down with it.
“Public servants” exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public.
Everyone understands the plight of the daily sportswriter, who constantly has to come up with new synonyms for “beat.” You know, “Last night, East Overshoe crushed, blinkered, snowed, spooked, buried, sliced and diced West Overshoe, 12 to 8.” The sports guy’s life is a game with no winners (sorry — conquering heroes): nobody receives any particular reward or recognition (claims the laurels) for finding odd ways of not using the same word twice. That’s just part of the job, in the same way that saying “Doesn’t he look natural?” is part of everyone’s job at open-casket funerals. No one knows why the tradition is maintained — although everyone should read the section of Fowler’sModern English Usage called “Elegant Variation” and consider the logic of the thing. Fowler’s point was that you might as well repeat a word, if the word is appropriate in the first place, rather than resorting to a supposedly elegant variation and making your readers waste their time deducing the fact that women representatives are the same as female delegates.
Reading the sportswriter’s elegant variations doesn’t blow out many brain cells; it’s just annoying. But the political reporter’s verbal gymnastics are both annoying and misleading. When they depict political disputes as mildly comic games, as the kind of warfare that takes place on the Scrabble board, where someone grabs points and captures the lead by putting “adze” in the right place, the artists of picturesque speech transform the serious into the trivial.
Or the trivial into the serious. The latest fad is for politicians to picture themselves, not as people who started out running for student council, then majored in poli sci because they liked the idea of government, then became interns for various hacks in the state legislature, then ran for the legislature themselves, and so on and so forth, through all the stages of a humdrum existence, culminating in a government pension, a dacha in Florida, and an occasional invitation to address their granddaughter’s third-grade class — the latest fad, I say, is for politicians to depict themselves not as people like that, but as public servants. There hasn’t been a day in the past month when I haven’t heard some politician pompously describe himself in that way, usually because somebody dared to lob a protest or an ethics investigation in his direction. Da noive!
Public servant is an odd phrase. It isn’t like calling yourself the chief cook and bottle washer. Cooks and bottle washers actually exist. Public servants, by contrast, exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public. No one appears in the slave market with a sign around his neck saying, “For Sale: Faithful Public Servant. Works Hard. Eats Little. Priced to Sell at $500.” No one devotes himself to doing the public’s business, claiming no rewards of money and power. If you wonder what literal public servants look like, too bad for you. You won’t find any.
But you will find people like Kathleen Sebelius, US secretary of health and human services, who on May 17, in the face of protests about her role in the abortion controversy, declared, “I have spent virtually my entire life in public service.” What that has to do with abortion, one way or another, you may well guess. I’m still wondering myself. But what chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there. Alarmed, I rushed to Wikipedia and discovered what a virtual life in public service really is.
Sebelius, age 64, is the daughter of a governor of Ohio. She went to an exclusive private prep school, then took a B.A. in (guess what?) political science. To this she added (guess what?) a master’s in public administration. From the age of 29 to the age of 38 she served, as Wikipedia says, “as executive director and chief lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.” (This Wikipedia article was written, in bulk and by the ton, either by Sebelius or by a fervent admirer who has kept meticulous track of every instant of her service to the public. Why do I think so? The entry says, among other things, that “in January 2006 [she] was tied for 20th most popular governor in the country.” No, really it says that.) After helping the Trial Lawyers, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives and served for eight years there, making laws for other people to obey. Then she was elected state insurance commissioner, then governor of the state.
Few or none of Sebelius’ elections appear to have taken place against her will; it seems, in fact, that she persistently pursued public office. Denied, by one of those pesky term-limits laws, a third chance to capture the governorship, she packed her bags and moved out of Kansas, grabbing her current job in Washington. Immediately, according to Wikipedia, she went from 57th most powerful woman in the world to 23rd most powerful woman in the world (rankings developed, no doubt with scientific accuracy, by Forbes magazine). She hasn’t been quite as successful as Dorothy Gale, who attained even greater power in the land of Oz, but who knows what her future holds? In any event, this is how Kathleen Sebelius came to spend virtually her entire life in public service.
You can decide for yourself if you would rather hear such picturesque speech as Sebelius’ self-descriptions or listen to stuff that tries not to create any picture at all — because that’s the other way in which words are used in our political environment. Among the alternative-media sensations of May 2012 was one of those recordings that seem to surface whenever a public servant imagines that there are no electronic devices in the vicinity. It documents an impromptu classroom debate between a public school teacher in North Carolina and a student who insists that it’s all right, it’s really all right, to criticize President Obama. The teacher refuses to permit such critiques in her classroom, asserting that people can (and presumably should) be arrested for them. Responding to complaints about her ridiculous statements, the relevant education authorities issued their own statement, reported by the Winston-Salem Journal (May 12, 2012):
“The Rowan-Salisbury School System expects all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain their professionalism in the classroom,” the statement says. “This incident should serve as an education for all teachers to stop and reflect on their interaction with students. Due to personnel and student confidentiality, we cannot discuss the matter publicly.”
You gotta love it. Reading these words, could you possibly picture what might have occasioned them? They not only refuse to describe a single thing that went on; they also refuse to conduct any further discussion of the matter publicly. Don’t bother to write — we’re not writing back. If you don’t think this is funny, you should reflect on the fact that the institution that refuses to discuss the matter publicly is itself a public institution.
But the more I reflect, the more I see in this non-picture. I see that all teachers are in need of reflection and education, which they acquire only when one of them makes a mistake that astonishes the nation. I see that there are things called respect and professionalism, which exist in certain environments, though perhaps not in others; it is impossible to tell whether these things exist in the school district in question, because of two mysterious things — personnel confidentiality and student confidentiality.
I would like to know what those phrases mean. Do they mean that students and “personnel” never say anything about anything, preferring to remain confidential? Or do they mean that no one has the right to say anything about students or “personnel”? Or do they mean . . . ? They could mean almost anything.
This is not what the Reader’s Digest had in mind. It’s not what anyone, not under the immediate control of Satan, has ever had in mind.
But now, turning to the pair of 500-pound whatevers in the room, let’s think for a moment about the picturesque speech of President Obama and former Governor Romney. Take a moment — take a million moments — and try to recall anything interesting, resonant, poignant, piquant, picturesque, or memorable in any good way that either of these men has said during the past several thousand years of the current political campaign. Try to recall . . . well, try simply to recall their campaign slogans. What are they? A new deal! No, that was Roosevelt. Are you better off today? No, Reagan. Let’s see, let’s see . . .
What chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there.
Try to remember the speeches they made. Go back as far as you want. “Ah,” you say. “I remember that speech where Obama claimed that because of him, the oceans would stop rising, or drying up, or something like that. Then there was that hopey-changey thing . . . when did he say that? What was it he said? Then he said something about how the Republicans had a car, and they drove it into a ditch, and now they were trying to get their hands on the wheel, so they could drive it out again . . . Something along those lines. I know he said that he looked exactly like Trayvon Martin. Or have I got that wrong? I guess I’m not doing very well here.”
No, you’re not. Now what about Romney? The picturesque speech of Mitt Romney. Recall some instances.
Thank you for completing the survey.
Here’s what I think is happening — mere speculation, but I could be right. Barack Obama, having written a book that nobody read, was expected to produce picturesque speech. When he did, however, it either sounded weird or just fell flat. His campaign advisors learned to discourage any further attempts at the picturesque. It’s a gamble they can’t afford. Mitt Romney is in less danger, because the only vaguely memorable thing he ever said was that strange story about his dog. But his flacks have adopted the same policy as Obama’s.
Notice that neither of these candidates has disciples, people who learned or even claim to have learned something from them. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, neither Obama nor Romney is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Wilson (thank God, in that last case). They don’t have disciples, and they may not even have friends; but they do have flacks and handlers. Flacks and handlers don’t want a picture. They’ll settle for a blur. So that’s what we get.