Now that George W. Bush has been reelected, the presidential debates keep returning to taunt me, especially the first one. As everyone knows, Bush's muddleheaded, bumbling performance surprised even his supporters, while John Kerry, the accomplished, if long-winded, technocrat, was pronounced the winner by all. There was, however, a little-remarked upon flight of rhetoric during Bush's two-minute closing statement that startled me at the time: "We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it's a valley of peace." Hearing the unexpected cadences of the Bible took me aback, for such musicality is completely alien to Bush, a man so unaccustomed to voicing graceful sentiments that he failed to modulate his tone as he spoke them, depriving himself of the opportunity to make his words, for a fleeting moment, resonate with those so powerfully intoned over 40 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr.
Instead, in Bush's closing remarks, this ham-fisted appropriation felt out of place, following, as it did, sentences that expressed his more typical, pedestrian style of thought that was in evidence throughout the debates: "We've done a lot of hard work together over the last three and a half years. We've been challenged, and we've risen to those challenges." But, now that Bush has been reelected, it has become uncomfortably clear that what sounds to me like a non-sequitor sounds to his supporters like the music of revelation, and what sounds to me like sheer stupidity--Bush's all-purpose "it's hard work" refrain--sounds to his supporters like good ol' Yankee plain speech (even if Bush is a self-styled Southerner).
Bush, of course, prides himself on being a plain-spoken man who speaks, as Wordsworth famously put it in the preface to his radically new poetry, the language "really spoken by men." The novel question, what form and tone of political discourse is appropriate to a democracy--how does one speak a language that is at once elevated but free from aristocratic overtones? How does one appeal to the highest, rather than the lowest, common denominator of a varied people?--became an object of intense debate in this country during the nineteenth century, as Kenneth Cmiel's Democratic Eloquence has taught us. What distinguishes our current president--and, in this regard, he is typical of our time--from earlier politicians, let alone poets, is that Bush apparently has no idea that there is any other language, that when one speaks as the president of the United States of America or as a candidate trying to persuade his fellow citizens of his fitness to occupy that high office, that such a person has an obligation not only to hold forth in a manner appropriate to his singular place in the world, but also to enunciate, with clarity and fluency, the political principles that give him the authority to speak in public at all.
Wordsworth's attack on the classical principle of decorum--according to which the level of diction must conform to the status of the subject matter--was so overextended during the last century that most people no longer associate decorum with public address, even if they still yearn for the soaring democratic eloquence of King or Lincoln and wince at Bush's patronizingly simplistic utterances. Bush's grammatical lapses are notorious and constitute a national embarrassment, but it is the utter impoverishment of his political imagination that makes me fear for our democracy, as this impoverishment is endemic to our time. One need only think of Governor Pataki's reading of the Gettysburg Address at the site of the World Trade Center, a public ceremony meant to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrible attack that happened in our time--not to be confused with the completely unrelated, terrible battles of the Civil War of the nineteenth century--to see just how resourceless, intellectually, morally, and aesthetically, our politicians have now become.
What this strange act of ventriloquism reveals (and we must not forget that Mayor Bloomberg read FDR's "Four Freedoms" and Governor McGreevey, the Declaration of Independence) is the longing to have at one's command a storehouse of vital ideas and resonant imagery that are part of the larger public consciousness, for it is only this kind of language that has the power to lift an event out of the confines of personal experience and into the expansive realm of historical significance. The last time such a language was widely spoken was during the nineteenth century, the century of self-created, plain-spoken men like Lincoln and Whitman, when it was a common practice for both cultivated and ordinary people to know the Scriptures and poetry by heart. And this explains why even personal letters and diaries of the time--let alone political speeches, poems, and essays--strike many who read them today as "literary," since their language resounds with biblical and poetic cadences and imagery. Allusions and quotations, most often unattributed, appear everywhere; today, most of us pass over them unnoticed.
One of the only shared languages that our politicians still have at their disposal is the technocratic language of facts and figures. During the debate, Kerry, in an effort to unmask Bush's lie that there is a meaningful coalition engaged in the war in Iraq, appealed to the facts: "Today we are 90 percent of casualties and 90 percent costs--$200 billion. $200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors." Facts, as common wisdom has it, are supposed to speak for themselves, but, in truth, because they turn life into dry abstractions, they always fall flat and thus make little impression on anyone. Only an administrator or manager, hardened by close commerce with facts, could ever imagine joining in the same breath America's percentage of dead and injured soldiers with America's percentage of the cost of the war. That Kerry is fluent in the language of facts and figures has earned him the reputation of being remote. In contrast, Bush showed he knew the cost of war in human terms when he offered up a folksy, if convoluted, set piece of the president meeting the widow of a young soldier killed in Iraq:
You know, it's hard work to try to love her as best as I can
knowing full well the decision I made caused her, her loved
one to be in harm's way. I told her, after we prayed and
teared up and laughed some, that I thought her husband's
sacrifice was noble and worthy.
I had recently been reading Whitman's Specimen Days and with the war in Iraq so much on my mind, his heartbreaking account of the suffering he had witnessed during the Civil War hit me with particular force. Listening to Bush's homey anecdote, I couldn't help thinking of a letter Whitman had written to the mother of Frank H. Irwin, Company E, 93rd Pennsylvania, who died on May 1, 1865. After describing the extent of the boy's injuries and the good care he received at the army hospital, Whitman offered the boy's mother the following words of comfort, which can only be quoted at length:
He seem'd quite willing to die--he had become very weak and
had suffer'd a good deal, and was perfectly resign'd, poor
boy. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must
have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here, under
the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and
among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so
composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be
surpass'd. And now like many other noble and good men,
after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up
his young life at the very onset in her service. Such
things are gloomy--yet there is a text, "God doeth all
things well"--the meaning of which, after due time, appears
to the soul.
I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger,
about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might
be worth while--for I loved the young man, though but I saw
him immediately to lose him. I am merely a friend visiting
the hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.
Whitman, of course, was not a politician, so perhaps it is unfair to use his words against Bush. He was a poet, but of a special kind, in accord with Wordsworth's famous definition, "a man speaking to men"--which is precisely what Bush, the plain-spoken politician, aspires to be. The comparison, then, can stand as an example of what plain speech, when it flows from a compassionate soul, might still sound like. Whitman's unblinking yet tender reports of what he saw during the war--the battles, the atrocities, the agonies of the wounded, the crushing loss of men on both sides--thus stand in starkest contrast to Bush's calculated show of compassion and, for that matter, to Kerry's cold recitation of the facts; indeed, to all the talk about the war, but most especially to the insipid accounts of embedded reporters and the Internet's photographs of the shame of Abu Ghraib and the videotapes of the ruthless beheadings of hostages (in both, "objective fact" blurs into obscenity). This is because Whitman makes us feel viscerally what the world looks like from the standpoint of common decency.
Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).
By Rochelle Gurstein