Great Moments in Speechwriting

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You can sort of figure out what John Boehner meant with his immortal line just now, "The bigger the government, the smaller the people." Government is the enemy, Americans stand tallest when standing on their own two feet, free enterprise is freedom's friend, and so on.

turkthumb.jpgBut jeez louise! As an actual line, sitting there on its own in a very short speech, it is about as clumsy an eight-word stretch of English as I can remember. What the hell -- with the same deftness I can just say that it's about as club-footed, crippled, or palsied an eight-word passage as we've heard. (OK, yes, bonus points for the eightnine-word phrase Bill Clinton would like to forget, or 11 words in its full form. But no speechwriter came up with that one.) You NEVER want to use phrases that have an obvious other meaning you'd rather people not think of. At right: a tragic victim of big government, the "Turkish Tom Thumb" evidently at a moment of uncontrolled governmental sprawl under the Ottoman Empire. If only the budget cutbacks and reforms of Ataturk had been in place at that time.

Boehner has seemed like a reasonable, public-spirited guy, put in an awkward situation by the lean-and-hungry Eric Cantor and his troops. This cannot be a performance he'll be proud of. Let's hope we look back on this as a low point before the "of course they eventually had to make a deal" resolution. And not as the evening when we realized that we actually had joined the Third World.

PS: Oh, yes, about the President's speech. I thought he made a perfectly fine, reasonable case for a balanced approach and the need for compromise. But I've thought from the start that some compromise solution was the only one. (For instance.) We'll see whether tonight's performance changes anyone's mind. My hopes are lower than they were an hour ago.

UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn has noted that the world's tallest people live in the Netherlands, home of the big-government welfare state.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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