Thursday, October 16, 2008

When "eloquence" is an epithet

By Carol Gee

The last debate between the two presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), is over. The panels and pundits have had their say, the polls have been enumerated, and the TV replays are on the way. Since I have the floor, here are my impressions. The contrasts I see are between form and substance, between shooting from the hip and fluent expression.

Candidate form was in the eye of the "commentaria." Opinion makers looked at how the men spoke more that what each said. TV opinion posited that the difference seemed to be indicated by what was visible on viewers' split screens. There was Obama's unflappability and McCain's edgy emotional reactions of anger, disdain and dismissiveness. The initial responses of both CNN and MSNBC, as I flipped back and forth, were that Senator McCain's performance was a definite improvement, and that Senator Obama's performance was rather flat. Many thought that McCain prevailed at the beginning. He did seem to be in good form, his thoughts persuasively expressed. Many liked the way Bob Schieffer handled the moderator's role.

Candidate substance was in the eye of the "publica." After the first responses of the pundits, the instant polls and the focus group results began to emerge, the tide turned toward an apparent Obama win. It seems that the public watched the debate somewhat differently than the TV commentary community. The viewing public did not like the candidates' attacks and defenses nearly as much as the core substantive content. Approval went up when the debate focused on the issues, particularly the economy. What won the public's approval, once again was Obama's eloquence, marked by forceful and fluent expression.

Form vs. substance: The challenge that "Joe the Plumber" faces in trying to start a business became one of McCain's talking points. Obama's focus with each new theme introduced by the moderator was a specific plan, eloquently laid out. He stayed on message, while McCain was trying everything to get under Obama's skin. Once again, it became very clear that, to the very serious problems facing the people of the U.S., McCain's lack of answers, his garbled and inarticulate responses, are in stark contrast to Obama's wide-ranging and specific ideas. Eventually McCain took up the theme of Obama's "eloquence," using it over and over as a kind of disdainful epithet for deceitfulness.

The word "eloquence" was used by Senator McCain, for example, in completely dismissive comments about the issue of the "health of the woman" in Roe v. Wade. He used it as reverse snobbery shorthand for manipulation or deceit, and it was very insulting. Senator McCain's revealing misuse of the word eloquence as an insult is a good clue to how little the man offers to a potential presidency.

With what are we left? We have 19 days until the election, 95 more days of the Bush presidency, and $562,900,440,000 (and rapidly counting) spent on the war in Iraq. We have stock markets around the world going down again. Our own lost 733 points yesterday. We have Congress campaigning, Democrats optimistic, and Republicans pessimistic.

We have experienced 8 years of a rampant epidemic of "dumb." A vaccine is on the horizon, "eloquence." In its correct usage, according to Webster's Dictionary, it means "1) marked by forceful and fluent expression, 2) discourse marked by force and persuasiveness, 3) vividly or movingly expressive or revealing." The choice is clear. Go with Webster. Eloquence will never be an epithet.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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  • Wonderful point. The attack on eloquence as though clear thinking and honest delivery were something to be afraid of is an attempt to please those who, because they don't think but only repeat, are terrified of the truth. It's part of the broad sales pitch that advertises the wisdom of the ill informed, unintelligent and superstitious as a virtue.

    I think you've hit on something that is at the core of the "conservative" movement.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:22 AM  

  • Capt. Fogg, sorry for the delayed response to your very kind comment. What you said about being afraid of the truth is at the heart of this Orwellian drama through which we are currently living. It is rocky ground on which to grow virtue.
    In a funny way I think that we observers must find two separate names for members of the Republican party. There are the ignorant superstitious types that have a big thing about getting money. And there are the fiscal conservatives, with whom I often identify. Senator Chuck Hagel, for example, is as bright AND conservative as anyone in the Senate. Both Arizona senators are of the first category.
    You have inspired me to think more about this as we, inevitably, move towards a more bipartisan era.

    By Blogger Carol Gee, at 4:51 PM  

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