Speaking of the Candidates

Our correspondent looks much too closely at the current crop of stump speeches

We all know what it is thatpoliticians talk a lot of. But it's worthwhile, especially in a presidential-election cycle, to examine stool specimens. George Bush says, "Our Founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity, the rights of every person, and the possibilities of every life." The job is to find the disclaimer: "See Alien and Sedition Acts for further details. Offer not valid for slaves, Indians, women, and persons without property in the following thirteen states."

Howard Dean says, "The idea of America using its power solely for its own ends is not consistent with the idealistic moral force the world has known for over two centuries." We sort through 227 years of moral account ledgers and read the accompanying British, Mexican, Sioux, and Spanish auditors' notes.

John Kerry talks about "the soaring aspirations of America." We ponder how much of America's greatness is owed to pedestrian aspirations, such as the Heinz family's dream of starting a ketchup company. As aspirations soar (in Manifest Destiny, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and the purchase of AOL Time Warner stock), Icarus moments occur.

Voters are not really expected to pay attention to the grandiloquence. And candidates are not really expected to produce it. That is, candidates—major candidates, anyway—don't write their own speeches. Custom dictates that others take no credit for doing so. And the candidates cannot be said to "give speeches," as that phrase was understood from the dawn of language until Roosevelt and Churchill. The public-speaking skills of the presidential candidates (Al Sharpton always excepted) are such that orations are more discarded than given, delivered in the paper-boy-and-porch-roof manner, a kind of campaign litter. Still, it's important to check what the candidates are saying, as opposed to what commentators say the candidates are saying—and, indeed, as opposed to what the candidates say they are saying when they are called to account for what they say. Thus the printed transcripts of thirty-six speeches by ten candidates have been read. Analysis of the contents may provide a lesson in contemporary democracy, or ("What we need most immediately is a sense of immediacy"—Joe Lieberman) it may not.

Among those who aren't listening to the candidates are, it would seem, the candidates. John Kerry claims, "I will live to the principle that I learned in Vietnam: the United States of America should never, ever go to war because we want to; we should only go to war because we have to." But where would that have left Korea? Where will it leave Liberia? And what if we don't really have to go, but we want to go because if we don't go now we'll really, really have to go later? Adhering to the principle that Kerry learned in Vietnam (and that children refuse to learn on long car trips), the world got World War II.

George Bush states, "It's a different kind of war than we're used to in America ... It's a war in which we will hunt down those who hate America, one person at a time." The snotty waiter at the Brasserie Lipp, in Paris, who brought me a Scotch and warm water—he's next.

Joe Lieberman—perhaps the last person one would think of as channeling Jerry Brown—professes, "Science has taught us that ... everything must be understood holistically, as part of symbiotic, ever changing ecosystems."

The relationship of political speaking to truth is complex, although not close. "There are some eighty thousand chemicals registered for use in the United States," says John Kerry, "and each day we are exposed to hundreds, even thousands, of them." Carbon dioxide, for example, is blowing through our noses this very minute.

But candidates do not tell outright lies. Except when they do. "I believe," John Edwards says, "we can give paid leave to millions of families without adding a burden to businesses." It is just possible that this is a true statement of Edwards's belief, but Edwards also has a higher-education plan: "I call it College for Everyone." Mike Tyson?

Sometimes it's not certain who's lying, but logic indicates that someone is trying to. Of the recession John Kerry says, "Never before in our country has there been an economic reversal this dramatic and this fast." George Bush says, "The recession was one of the shortest and shallowest in modern American history."

More common than lies are vague generalities, in which candidates sometimes tangle themselves by Brer Rabbit means. "We cannot talk vague generalities," John Kerry says, immediately after saying, "We don't have to choose between jobs and the environment. Protecting the environment is jobs—the high-value-added jobs of the future."

Just when one's vision blurs with indefiniteness, and particularities become one's dearest wish, they arrive—the way wishes did in the tale "The Monkey's Paw." Dick Gephardt details his program "to scrap the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans and corporations." Wealthier Americans and corporations, he says, will be required to provide health-care coverage to every employee. "My plan," Gephardt says, "then gives tax credits to cover most of the cost." This, says Gephardt, will result in "stimulating one of the biggest sectors of our private economy"—that sector being, evidently, illness and injuries. There will also be "tax incentives for a new generation of automobiles." Good news for those of us whose Bush tax cut barely equaled a down payment on a Lincoln Navigator. And we will be buying American. Gephardt intends to "establish an international minimum wage." Gephardt will "create a single pension plan that follows you from the moment you're born to the moment you retire." He says, "You'll get every penny of your retirement savings, no matter how often you change jobs." This is like Social Security privatization but better, because Gephardt is a Democrat, so you'll get Social Security, too. Gephardt wants preschool "for every child" and also postschool, "a safe, educational place to go between the hours when school's out but parents are still at work." Underschool and overschool are next, to keep the rest of us off the streets. As for the new Detroit iron we'll get to buy during the Gephardt Administration, the candidate says, "Industry is already working toward totally hydrogen-powered cars ... So what are we waiting for? The next spike in oil prices? The next gasoline crisis?" The Hindenburg to land? Plus, Gephardt says, "I'll launch an aggressive new Apollo Project ... to achieve true energy independence."

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His satirical survey of American politics, Parliament of Whores (1991), has recently been reissued.

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