I suppose that everyone who has been chained to a sofa and forced to watch the presidential “race” (which is actually a horrible, slow crawl, relieved only by an occasional fall off a cliff) has compiled a mental list of the best, better, worse, and worst verbal performers. Here’s my list.
The Best performer, I believe, was Carly Fiorina. Trailing badly in the polls, she was willing to speak at any time, on any subject — and every time I saw her, she was crisp, clear, and well-informed. She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before. She could surprise you that way. She didn’t completely avoid clichés, but she had a lower cliché count than the other candidates, and she had practically no “uh” count.
This is very rare among politicians, and should be greeted as a miracle after seven years of Obama, whose rate often goes up to 40 “uhs” a minute. Saying “uh” all the time commonly indicates that a person is trying to hold the stage long after running out of anything to say. Obama is the best example in the present era. If you counted the time he has spent on substantive remarks, and compared it with the time he has lavished on “uh,” you’d end up with a ratio of about 1 to 100. But Fiorina never wasted your time. And she, virtually alone in the pack of presidential contenders, never evaded a question by proclaiming that the American people don’t care about that; what they care about is blah, blah, blah. She was likable, and I liked her.
She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before.
In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker. Most of them would be considered sickening bores, heartless charlatans, or dangerous lunatics. In that sad context, however, they can still be ranked as better or worse.
Marco Rubio is a case in point. Chris Christie, in the best rhetorical moment of his own campaign, told Rubio that he was onto him: Rubio had a thing that he said all the time, something about Obama trying to make America into a European socialist country; and while that happened to be true, Rubio said it on every occasion, in answer to every question, and that was going too far. Christie noticed it, and made an issue of it in debate with Rubio, and his comments had a devastating effect on Rubio’s campaign. Rubio actually apologized to his supporters for screwing up so badly. In my opinion, Christie’s reproof of Rubio was the verbal high point of the campaign, so far.
But notice the difference between Christie and Rubio. Christie is great in dealing with hecklers, and in giving sharp answers to the kind of inside-the-beltway questions that turn other candidates into bores. Beyond that, he’s a bore himself. He could not manage to argue for own candidacy. But Rubio, who was on the losing side in his exchange with Christie, is actually a pretty good public speaker. Most of his time is occupied with denouncing Obama, which is easy to do, but he manages to do it without the overt ranting that is one of Ted Cruz’s besetting sins (about which more, below). Rubio’s “uh” count is low, and although he seldom has anything informative to say, he’s fluent and well organized and occasionally puts a little vibration in his voice that passes for inspiration.
In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker.
On February 8, two days after his disastrous exchange with Christie, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio on Fox News and tested him by popping a quick series of questions about niche issues: should kids be legally required to get vaccinations? should “racist” Hallowe’en costumes be outlawed? etc. Rubio replied to all her queries rapidly and incisively, without the hedging to which most candidates resort when they don’t want a minor issue to make them the victims of pressure-group mayhem.
Ben Carson was an unusual candidate and an unusual speaker. I enjoyed his understated manner. He was too slow, but with him slowness suggested thoughtfulness, not lack of substance. His tendency to generalize was unfortunate, because it associated him with professional politicians and other people who seldom have anything specific to say. Carson did know what he was talking about, most of it, until he got involved with foreign policy — which was too bad, because his lack of knowledge in that field implied (I think falsely) that he didn’t know much about other fields, either.
My lack of bias in this assessment of speaking skills is demonstrated by my placement of Jeb Bush, whose nepotistic sense of entitlement I very much disliked, in the ranks of the Better speakers, with Rubio at the top of the Betters, Carson someplace in the middle, and Bush at the still-honorable bottom. Despite the mean things that Donald Trump kept saying about him, Bush was not notably lacking in energy or enthusiasm (as I certainly would have been if I had spent every waking hour of the past few years indulging a greed for public office). His tone was too even to inspire or surprise, and his constant references to various obscure and uninteresting successes in “running” Florida gave him the gravitas of a lead pipe. Nevertheless, he was a reasonably coherent speaker and much more circumspect in diction than the majority of his opponents. I say this despite his many obnoxious statements about “growing” things that cannot be “grown,” such as the economy.
Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics. His salient proposals, examined either singly or together, attracted no one except the crony capitalists and RINOs and Chamber of Commerce types. Whenever Jeb said anything, he was reasonably suspected of relaying the doubletalk of those core supporters, and of his brother — a language in which “immigration reform” means “open borders,” “I don’t believe in nation-building” means “I do believe in nation-building,” and so on. For normal listeners, that was not a source of enthusiasm.
As politicians go, however, Jeb did a much better than average job. There’s something to be said for the quality that ancient rhetorical theorists would call his ethos, the character he projected. I can hardly think of anything more demoralizing than to be regarded as my party’s inevitable nominee, and be backed by maybe a hundred million dollars in contributions and pledges, and then fall into the swamp, and stay there. Yet Jeb maintained to the end the same ethos, dull but sturdy, with which he began. Even Dr. Carson finally yielded to the temptation of public bitterness, as he found himself sinking in the polls. But Jeb did not. That was the best thing about him.
Jeb Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics.
Exchanging, now, the Better for the Worse, we come to Ted Cruz. Cruz is a trained debater. If you read his speeches, he often comes across as a clever verbal strategist. But when you hear him deliver them, the effect is different. He is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”
He has been criticized — indeed, portrayed as weird — for using the Bible, even when, in celebration of his victory in Iowa, he turned to Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” That verse, familiar to most Christians, and cited with considerable effect not just by Cruz but by such people as Gene Debs, the socialist leader, struck media commentators with astonishment. What was the guy saying? Was that the Bible? How can we find out? Well, there are such things as Bible concordances, scores of which you can find online, if you know the word “concordance.” But we shouldn’t suppose that the educators of the populace will themselves be educated people. The problem for me was that Cruz’s Iowa victory speech, like many of his other efforts, was mercilessly long and frothy, indicating nothing so much as a delight in hearing himself talk — a problem that can only grow worse, should his electoral success, such as it is, continue. Another bad, bad tendency is pandering to his audience, not once but over and over again. The occasional Bible verse is one thing, but his evangelical buzzwords are another. Even the evangelicals must be bored by them.
I’m tiptoeing toward the Worst.
I am not the only person who’s said it, but the political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton. The claim has been made that he’s buoyed by his own ethos (if an ethos can keep you from drowning, which it usually can’t). But ask yourself: if he were your neighbor, would you like or respect him? Sure, he’s sincere, in the sense that he believes the nonsense he spouts, but must we assume that every crank or crackpot is sincere? That’s the question H.L. Mencken asked about William Jennings Bryan, and his answer was No. The idea is that if you have cancer, and I offer to cure it by having you place your hands on your television and chant, “I am the 99%,” the concept of sincerity does not apply. If you sincerely want to cure cancer, why don’t you become a physician? Why don’t you read a book? As Mencken said, “This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”
Cruz is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”
Sanders cares too much to read a book. And his is not a passive but an aggressive ignorance. His speeches are nothing but rants. You realize that when you hear his words, but the awful thing is that you get the same impression when you turn down the volume and just look at him. He is the male equivalent of the Witch of the West. A person who looks like that when he talks, or yells, can hardly be said to have a persuasive ethos. And when, with reluctant hand, you turn the volume back up, you get the full horror of Bernie Sanders. The words are idiotic. That whole business about one-tenth of one percent owning 90% of the nation’s wealth . . . You’d have to redefine 20 common terms in 20 peculiar ways in order to get to that figure, and even then, I don’t see how you could. No, it’s crap, and it’s obvious crap, and nobody with an ounce of integrity would spout it.
But there’s a Worst of the Worst, and everyone knows who it is. It’s Mrs. Clinton. A delight to all opinion journalists, she is the person about whom nothing is too bad to say. Even among people who intend to vote for her there is almost universal loathing of her public performance and private character. Of all serious presidential candidates in American history, she is undoubtedly the most repellent. No list of adjectives can exhaust her repulsive qualities, and one of the most repulsive is that the people who support her know it and feel it themselves. A person who can command a leading campaign under these circumstances does indeed have something going for her, but it has nothing to do with the old categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.It has to do with the fact that she is a pathetic fool, hopelessly twisted by her lust for money and power, and therefore irresistibly attractive to wealthy people of similar character.
Well, but what happened to Donald Trump? What shall we think of him?
This is a problem. What kind of public speaker is Donald Trump? As I said in last month’s column, he’s a person who blurts out his message, whatever it is, in slogans and fragments of observations and whoops of glee (“We’re gonna win so much, and you’re gonna be so happy . . . !”). None of this leaves much room for literary analysis. He is not Daniel Webster. And he is not “presidential” in any normal sense. John Kasich — whom I haven’t discussed in this column, because he is far too dull — was correct in suggesting that Trump lacks the ethos of a president. But his candidacy demonstrates, for good or ill, that you can become president without that ethos. So he, too, must have something.
The political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.
Look — If I tell you that Franklin Roosevelt had persuasive charm, are you going to attack me for favoring the New Deal? I don’t favor the New Deal, and the New Deal has little to do with an assessment of Roosevelt’s rhetorical techniques. Please apply the same logic to what I say about Trump. My assessment of Trump’s rhetoric is that it’s done a lot of harm and a lot of good. The harm is that it’s narrowed the gap between competition for the world’s most potent office and the kind of thing one reads in entertainment magazines. When Trump talks about political issues, he does it in the style of a Hollywood columnist, full of breezy anecdotes, flashy claims, and satirical remarks.
That’s the bad part. The good part is . . . well, you’d have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy the satirical remarks. But the really good part is that he has broken the bonds of media correctness.
When Trump began his campaign, you were not supposed to say that Bill Clinton is a bad man, and that his wife has been his enabler. You were not supposed to say that there are millions of people in this country illegally, and that their presence depresses wages for people who are in the country legally. You were not supposed to say of any candidate for the presidency that he is lifeless and weak. You were not supposed to say that an unpopular foreign leader is someone we need to come to terms with. Now, whether such things are true or not, they are on the minds of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, and they should be spoken about, so they can be debated. What kind of political process is it that forbids such obvious topics from being introduced? It’s a corrupt political process, a process in which every type of social pressure is exerted against the expression of unpopular ideas and even of popular ones.
This is new, and terrible. But Trump successfully defied the ban. He showed that he just didn’t care what the managers of public discourse thought about him. He didn’t care that they wanted to shame him and shut him up. He just went on saying things — many of them goofy or tasteless or just plain wrong — and it soon became evident that the other candidates and their managers and the pressure groups who support them and the analysts and the academics and the would-be censors weren’t smart enough to know how to answer him. This general unmasking has to be good for the country, and perhaps for the world.
Every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up.
If there is a sacred cow on this planet, it’s the pope. Heaven forbid you should say something against the Pope o’ Rome, especially such a wonderful, sympathetic, warmhearted man of the people as the current wearer of the triple crown. But the problem with prelates is that they always want to intervene in politics. That’s what Pope Francis spends a lot of his time doing, and that’s what he did when he called Trump “unchristian” because he wants to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. The pope denounced him for wanting to build walls rather than bridges — and you’d have to look a long way before finding a more inane comment, unless you looked through some of the pope’s other statements. Trump immediately blasted back, and the pope sent out a public relations man to say that Francis didn’t really mean Trump, and didn’t really mean to intervene in politics . . . “This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for [sic]. The Pope has clearly said he didn’t want to get involved in the electoral campaign in the US and also said that he said what he said on the basis of what he was told [about Trump], hence giving him the benefit of the doubt.”In short, the Vatican could come up with nothing better than an obvious lie, soaked in obvious bilge. It was another victory for Trump.
In fact, every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up. He has shown that if you don’t pretend to respect people and opinions that you do not, indeed, respect, you can keep on talking, and you may also find yourself winning friends and influencing people. Does that mean that Trump’s talk is any good? Certainly not. But I would like to live in a world in which I am free to criticize the pope, or to call Hillary Clinton an enabler of vice. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.
To tell you the truth, however, what I really want to do is to stop talking about any of the candidates. I probably won’t get my wish. But I did think it was my duty to say something about them now, before people forget who most of them were.