Following the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last year, Michael Gerson published a thoughtful column stating that the dinner was an occasion where “the rhetoric of our historical era reached a culminating, symbolic moment.” He was referring to inappropriate jokes made by Michelle Wolf, a liberal comedian, as well as comments made by President Trump. I try to stay away from politics in this blog, so I will not share Gerson’s criticism of any individual’s remarks but, more importantly, his plea for a return to eloquence in our public life–eloquence which qualifies as “logic on fire.” I will let each of you apply his views to anyone on whom the shoe of vile rhetoric seems to fit.
The Gerson column appeared in The Washington Post on April 30, 2018. Selections are below.
In both Washingtons, political discourse was dominated by the values and practices of reality television and social media: nasty, shallow, personal, vile, vindictive, graceless, classless, bullying, ugly, crass and simplistic. This is not merely change; it is digression. It is the triumph of the boors. It is a discourse unworthy of a great country, and a sign that greatness of purpose and character is slipping way.
Here is an experiment. Take a book of John F. Kennedy’s speeches and put your finger randomly on a page. Mine went to a last-minute appeal Kennedy made to Democratic convention delegates before the 1960 convention. He ends by quoting the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Humanity with all its fears / with all its hopes of future years / is hanging breathless on thy fate! ”
This was not a moment when high oratory was expected. It was an appeal at a political dinner during a delegate street fight against Lyndon B. Johnson. And Kennedy’s natural style of speaking was usually different: direct, cutting and funny. But for Kennedy — and for at least some Americans in the 1960s — rhetorical ambition was seen as appropriate to the generational ambitions of the New Frontier.
American political rhetoric has changed dramatically over time. After being florid and verbose, Lincoln made it spare and poetic. With radio and television, presidential language became more conversational, personal and image-oriented. Kennedy was, in some ways, a glorious exception. Of his inaugural address, John Steinbeck said: “Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the Republic.”
The golden age of American rhetoric in the 1960s, of course, stood beside the hate-filled, populist appeal of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the profanity and vulgarity of comedian Lenny Bruce. But the updated versions of both have come to dominate American politics in an entirely new way. It is as if, in the struggle for America’s rhetorical soul, Wallace has finally won. “Hell,” exclaimed Wallace, “we got too much dignity in government now.” Not anymore.
What is the problem with this? What is wrong with the discourse of the Internet comments section? The rhetoric of common people?
But the problem is deeper, for one main reason: because good rhetoric is the carrier of serious thought. “Eloquence,” said theologian Lyman Beecher, “is logic on fire.” A great and memorable phrase encapsulates an argument. “The world must be made safe for democracy” expressed Woodrow Wilson’s vision of America’s role in the world. Kennedy’s “Let them come to Berlin” summarized America’s commitment to containing the Soviet Union. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech grew out of a compelling conception of fairness and justice.
Gerson concluded his column with this observation: “the repair of our public life will eventually require a restoration of rhetoric.” Just as I try to avoid politics in this blog, so it is with proselytizing. However, I have to suggest that St. Paul shared something of value to all rhetoricians when he wrote the following to the church in Ephesus:
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting , and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you .. (Ephesians 4:30-5:2)