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Washington Diarist: Sound And Fury

Gorgeous he was not. He stood a few inches over five feet tall. In place of his usual Savile Row suit, he wore a light blazer and dark slacks, and his shirt flared open at the collar. His hair was thinning, his tan fading. But, when he ascended the podium, the audience cheered. It was Saturday night at the First Congregational Church in downtown Washington, and George Galloway—the most celebrated visiting orator in the United States—was about to address the antiwar crowd.

Galloway’s day job is representing an East London neighborhood in British Parliament for the respect Party. (He was expelled from Labour in 2003 after a decade of criticizing party leadership.) But over the past year, he has found success on these shores. The New York Times anointed him a “flamboyant orator and skilled debater.” Of a tirade he unleashed on Capitol Hill last spring, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer raved, “A blistering attack on U.S. senators rarely heard or seen.” More recently, a columnist on The Nation’s website lauded Galloway for being “inspiring and succinct.” U.S. news outlets have affectionately taken to calling him “Gorgeous George,” a nickname in the U.K. that honors his foppish insouciance.

But, at the antiwar speech, when I saw Galloway—once memorably described as “a Louis Vuitton-toting Socialist”—he had dressed down for his audience, a crowd that was not chic, not even radical chic. It was mostly middle-aged, and its members favored patchouli and hemp over Chanel. Earlier that day, many of them had been among the 100,000 antiwar protesters filling up the wide avenues around the National Mall. Galloway was in the capital to support the rally, as well as to cap off his monthlong national antiwar speaking tour. (He had previously promised the faithful “a good workout with Hanoi Jane, formerly Barbarella, the divine Miss Jane Fonda,” but, rather mortally, she had to bow out for hip surgery.) For $10, anyone wishing to hear the iniquities of the Imperial West tallied alongside the virtues of Tariq Aziz could have a space in the pews. And, for $13.95 more, they could purchase the orator’s new book, Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington.

A ticket got you much more than an hour with Galloway. His opening act was a series of brief speeches by stock characters of the antiwar movement— the disillusioned soldier, the bereaved mother, the Arab-American, the socialist litterateur. The crowd received them with polite enthusiasm, but little anticipation. Ever since coalition troops stormed into Baghdad in 2003, what the U.S. antiwar movement has been in search of is a good spokesperson. Galloway is who they found. “He just talks better than any American politician,” gushed one woman at the Washington speech.

Galloway didn’t disappoint his fans, even if they may have found his stream-of-conscious style confusing. For 45 minutes, in a nimble Scottish brogue, he maneuvered between fiery indictments of Tony Blair and George W. Bush and jolly invocations of his favorite bards—Shakespeare, Wilde, Augustine, Orwell. His greatest hit of the night was repeating a retort he had recently put to radio host Michael Medved (not about Iraq): “Isn’t that a little vainglorious?” (The hyperarticulate put-down is a Galloway specialty.) He also teased out many striking historical parallels— comparing Bush to Alexander the Great; the NeoCons to the Bloomsbury group.

It wasn’t the first time Galloway had puzzled America with his wit. Last May, he descended vociferously on a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee, like several newspapers before, had accused him in a report of receiving oil vouchers from Saddam Hussein and then laundering the money through the Mariam Appeal, his charity for Iraqi children. Galloway, in his defense, dismissed the allegation as “the mother of all smokescreens” and Norm Coleman, the Republican subcommittee chair, as “remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice.” Besides hyperbole, he also brandished two other rhetorical devices. Avoidance: He dodged questions about a Jordanian business associate accused of illegal dealings in Iraq. And fabrication: He accused ranking Democrat Carl Levin of supporting the war. “Sorry about that,” Levin replied flatly, “I didn’t.”

“Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” This is perhaps the most famous phrase Galloway has ever uttered, and, over the past decade, he has employed his full range of oratorical powers trying to prove he didn’t mean it. The words were addressed to Saddam Hussein during a 1994 visit to Baghdad. Galloway now insists that his admiration was directed at the Iraqi people. Their courage, their strength, their indefatigability. But his protestations hardly seem credible: As his antiwar speech demonstrated, his language is ornate, but his politics are dangerously simple.

In her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age, Kathleen Hall Jamieson speculates that artful political rhetoric began to wane when “[d]ramatically illustrated discursive argument [gave] way to dramatically bodied assertion.” And what does Galloway do if not assert? He asserts likenesses (between the Third Reich and the Bush administration). He asserts injustices (largely those committed against himself). He asserts insults (here he is truly an egalitarian). His eloquence is the worst kind the antiwar movement could hope for: It is all presumption and no persuasion.

The marquee moment of Galloway’s speaking tour was not his Washington finale but his New York debate with fellow British expatriate Christopher Hitchens. The two men hadn’t met since mutually heckling each other at last spring’s Senate hearing, and the trash talk leading up to the big night—Galloway called Hitchens a “drink-sodden former Trotskyite popinjay”; Hitchens declared Galloway a “disgusting figure”—was nerdy belligerence at its best. After an hour of sharp parrying, the moderator asked each of the men to respond with a simple yes or no to the question of whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq. “Not only do I…” Galloway began. “Only a word, only a word,” the moderator interrupted. For a moment, Galloway was speechless.

This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.