Originally Published on November 18th, 1916.
Looking back on the great welter of words without meaning, there is one consolation in the campaign debates. Political speeches are not nearly so hard to read as they used to be, even a comparatively short time ago. Of course reading a political speech afterwards is always like visiting the wings of the theatre in the daylight, but the contrast is not quite so painful as it used to be. After all it was not so very long ago that Mr. Bryan could wind up a speech regarded as fiery at the time with a peroration, beginning, "Behold a republic resting securely upon the foundation stones quarried from the mountain of eternal truth...Behold a republic proclaiming to the world, etc.," and so on with eight or ten more "Behold-a-republic's," each introducing a similar phrase. And people will recall without any strain on their memories vast areas of oratory, rich, heavy, gorgeous as purple plush: every noun its sonorous adjective, every verb its indomitable adverb. It made them quite happy at the time.
"Vicious, shameless, disreputable, arrogant, ungrateful defamation," "venom and malice," "base perversion," "unblushing misrepresentation," "vilification and abuse"--these terms were always turning up in the really powerful speeches and almost always in the same order. For example, it was always "vilification and abuse," never by any chance "abuse and vilification," and no one, however hurried or absent-minded, ever left out "unblushing" before "misrepresentation." Then there was "animus." What has become of "animus," by the way? The other terms are still employed occasionally but nobody seems to care about "animus" at all. Strong men used to blench at the sound of it. Tell an orator he showed "animus" and he hurled it back in the other orator's teeth. At home afterwards one sometimes wondered what there was so improper about animus, for regarded simply it seemed rather a good thing to have and well worth showing. But everybody hated it to be seen. In those days people were always being knocked down verbally without knowing what it was that hit them. It is a great mistake to think of bombast as always weak. It has often been the deadliest of political weapons. It is effective now, as any one can see who will recall impartially certain sentences on Americanism during the late campaign, and probably it always will be, but it has shaded off a bit. There can be no doubt of it. "Bloodguilty usurper" for example is by no means what it used to be as a term of presidential reproach.
No reader of campaign material old or recent should let himself be sanguine for a moment. You can always kill some politician with a toy balloon, and always please some audience when you do so, and there is always the class of minds that can read in the morning without repentance the speech that dragged them down the night before. Yet there are more people nowadays who expect orators to strip their words for action and there are fewer speeches composed exclusively of drum majors as they march Into the public mind. Aesthetic amelioration in this country does not proceed at a breakneck rate of speed, but bombast is probably a good deal less powerful than it was in the eighteen-forties, for example. Bombast was a great aid to "manifest destiny" when we "stabled our horses in the halls of Montezuma" and all that, but it is very doubtful if bombast of the pure brand will have quite as much to do with the settlement of our present Mexican question.
There are signs of change from an even later period. Mark Twain were he living today might be feeling just as strangely about present conditions as he did when he advised us to paint the Stars and Stripes black and adorn it with the skull and crossbones, and he might be just as right or just as wrong, but he would certainly use a different form of expression. Great hearts up Boston way might beat just as hard as ever they beat when phrases burst from them about "Thanksgivings of Shame," but there is a strong rhetorical presumption that they would beat to a different tune, and it is doubtful if Porto Rico could be "shaken over Hell" now with anything like the oratorical result, no matter how badly we behaved to Porto Rico. In short, one can be almost certain of a diminution in the number of phrases that expire when you put in a pin.
Cynics say it is merely analogous to the change to the short skirt from trains or crinoline, and that when orators cut the words too close to the thought they will swing back to the hoop-skirts and bustles of buncombe. That is a mechanical theory of no real weight. There is no reason to think that utility will not rule its master, or that seventy years of criticism, from Dickens to Mr. Dooley, have not had some effect. When a political candidate is tired he may talk now, just as he always would, somewhat in this manner: "Politically at least, he was living in a fool's paradise, because that which he considered to be his duty brought the house down upon his head, and of a sudden he saw what seemed to him incredible, the working of a deal by which the very fabric was to be pulled up by the roots, and this at the hands of those he had served and whom he thought his friends." But after a good sleep and clear-headed application to study he will often speak with the precision, conciseness, and essentially literary quality which one remarks more generally, to be sure, among bar-keepers.