The lofty promises and lowly debate of Campaign '92
In the 1962 movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the working-class toff played by Tom Courtney sits with a friend in front of his mother's new TV and watches a British politician deliver a speech. At first they watch blankly, then they giggle. Soon they lower the sound and provide their own audio. "Buh buh buh buh buh buh buh. . . ." They shake their fingers for emphasis, looks of bland concern on their faces. The scene is deeply anti-establishment, and funny.
That, I think, is where the American public is this year as they watch their candidates for high office speak. Buh buh buh. . . .
Rarely has what politicians say been held in such low regard; rarely have books on rhetoric been so prevalent and popular. Why would this be? Perhaps the success of books such as Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg reflects an unmet national yearning for words that are elevated, pertinent, and true, that attempt to persuade and not only assert. No one expects this from the candidates this year, which may have something to do with the air of disappointment that already enclouds the process.
The problem is usually put this way: Isn't it sad that people no longer have faith in politicians? But I think the problem is that the politicians no longer have faith in the people. That's why they patronize voters. It's also why none of our current leaders will be remembered as great. Great leaders trust the people. The people can tell, and eventually trust back. This makes both leadership and followership possible, which makes progress possible.
The family values debate--actually, debate is too complimentary a word for the repetition of the words "family" and "values" in recent speeches--has further soured this campaign, and only partly because it has brought out the worst in each party (in the Republicans, prissiness; in the Democrats, lack of seriousness).
What is most obviously missing is a clear definition of terms and meaning. Those who speak of family values tend to do it with soft, muzzy phrases that both lull and confuse. "We believe in the family," and "As far as I'm concerned the family is the number-one building block!" All true, but so what? Democrats believe in the family; they don't have a plank in their platform called Destroy the Waltons. Republicans playing offense are somehow too shy to be explicit; one assumes this is in hopes that the voters will make their own associations, the more unpleasant the better.
When we use words not to clear up but to cloud, we show disrespect for the audience and the issues. I have a friend, a highly sophisticated former government official, who believes that the family values debate is really about this: The Democrats, obligated to various gay rights groups for money and support, will, upon taking the White House, include homosexuals as a minority covered by the nation's civil rights laws, a decision that will inevitably allow the legalization of homosexual marriage.
If my friend is right that this is what we're talking about--by the way, is he? are we?--wouldn't it be helpful to treat this issue, in the manner of the grownups we are, as an area of frank discussion? Mr. Clinton, would you take actions as president that allowed or encouraged legalization of marriage between same-sex homosexuals? If you would, or would not, why? And what would you envision as the implications of such action? Mr. Bush, we put the same questions to you.
To be direct and honest is to show respect; to be indirect and only suggestive is not just subtle but--nasty, creepy, low.
The issue has been undermined by its proponents. It has been reduced to the almost comically pinched, or at least so it seemed when Marilyn Quayle, in an otherwise interesting speech at the Republican convention, boasted that not everyone...