Notes: Does Your Democrat Bite?

GARY HART WON in New Hampshire. I was in Minnesota, Walter Mondale’s state. The St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press had a story: Hart knew how to talk on TV, Mondale didn’t. Said an unnamed producer of network news:

“Hart speaks in sound bites: the fifteen-to twenty-second pithy statements that we absolutely must have to make a piece, statements with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

“When you try to cut into [Mondale], you always find that the complete thought he’s developing has a lot of pieces and structures. He doesn’t wrap it up well.

“It bothers me that you can’t get the smartest people on TV just because they speak in dependent clauses.”

The producer had used six dependent clauses himself. But he wasn’t on TV, he just produced it. Maybe I was into too many pieces and structures myself. Maybe America was. I did some research. These are dependent clauses:

• “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights . . .”

• “. . . in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity . . .”

• “. . . whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Fine. But America needs new initiatives. Fresh energy. High concept. America responds to a person who will wrap it up. These are sound bites:

• “Give me liberty or give me death!”

• “Go for it!”

• “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Sound bites turn people on. Do people dance to dependent clauses? “When the deep purple falls . . .” Not anymore. Now it’s “Beat it, beat it, beat it!” and “M ma-ni-ac!a-ni-ac,” I resolved to move toward sound bites myself.

Then Mondale won in Illinois.

I was confused. Confusion and sound bites don’t mix. Time for more research. I went to a dinner party and found a network anchorman there.

Dinner-party statements by anyone above Cabinet rank are not for attribution. So the anchorman will go nameless. I asked him about the anonymous producer’s remarks. The anchorman spoke in a tone of professional appreciation:

“Right. I’ve just been cutting Hart. Everything he says is clip-clipty-clop, clip-clipty-clop.”

The anchorman moved his hand in a crisp, vigorous way.

I had to like that rhythm. I spoke to our hostess. “Great baked ham.”I took a good, sound bite. I was getting pithier and pithier.

Then Mondale won in New York.

“Maybe I’ll ease partway back into dependent clauses,” I said to myself. But it might be too late. I couldn’t remember any subordinating conjunctions. I swallowed hard.

More research. I watched Shirley MacLaine on 60 Minutes. She was telegenic. She expressed firm opinions:

• You can learn from winning, you can learn from losing.

• There are no great people in politics anymore.

• The most brilliant poem ever written is Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

Shirley MacLaine won the Academy Award.

I looked that poem up. It is almost all dependent clauses.

Then Mondale won in Pennsylvania.

My mouth was dry. I had gone for sound bites hook, line, and sinker. Should I have kept at least one tooth in dependent clauses? I couldn’t answer that question. Not in sound bites.

I needed more research.

I read a Mondale statement on winning in Pennsylvania: “This is a big win. . . . I would anticipate several tough fights down the road.”


Relief at last.

Of course Mondale was winning! He had caught on to sound bites. Probably read about them in the Sunday Pioneer Press. I thought back. When had Mondale brought his campaign into focus? After New Hampshire. How? By saying “Where’s the beef?”

I read a Hart statement on losing in Pennsylvania: “If it gets down to a candidate running for President, in effect, on the backs of only one constituent group, I think that doesn’t say much for the ability of the candidate to broaden that base.”

Hart had drifted into dependent clauses.

Not me. Clipty-clop. I wouldn’t say “if” if I had a mouthful of it.

Shirley MacLaine may be right. But not about that poem.

—Roy Blount, Jr.