Great Moments in Speechwriting

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/07/great-moments-in-speechwriting/242529/