Maybe it’s smartphones. Or television and the 10-second soundbite. Maybe it’s all of that instant access to information.
But any way you look at it, the people who get microphones stuck in front of their faces these days just don’t seem as smart or pithy as they did a few decades — or centuries — ago.
This conclusion grew after I read something current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in 2004: “My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.”
Why don’t our leaders talk like that — or talk in ways that truly inspire? American political speak has become mostly boring, often being little more than a race to nastiness. It’s less inspirational than pure vanilla, fraught with buzzwords, poll-tested stock phrases and blather.
These days, when are you really knocked out of your socks with words like Franklin Roosevelt’s “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” or Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream?
Instead we get (or, at least, used to get) nasty tweets or insults or dull sobriquets that dumbed down America. Where are the modern Mark Twains, Winston Churchills or Oscar Wildes? What about the Eleanor Roosevelts or Vince Lombardis or, even, Yogi Berras?
None of this is to suggest there aren’t a few inspirational leaders and speakers these days. Think of former President Barack Obama or prison reformer Bryan Stevenson. But on balance, they’re the exception in these days of instant information and reaction, not the rule.
“Two of our last three president cared nothing about the English language,” said Indiana University journalism professor Chris Lamb, author of The Art of the Political Putdown: The Greatest Comebacks, Riposts, and Retorts in History.
“The exception was, of course, Obama, who used the English language like a Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet, which is ironic, if you believe the right wing, because Obama was of course born in Kenya. Obama really understands words. Bush and Trump treated words like they were unwanted bugs.”
Politicians, in particular, may not be less smart than they were a generation or five ago, but there is something weird going on in the verbal ether.
“I think they’re lazier and too many of them don’t give a damn about words,” said Lamb, who once taught at the College of Charleston. “When you listen to NPR or PBS, everyone being interviewed sounds really smart, except (Ohio Congressman) Jim Jordan, but he’s not interviewed very much. When you watch Fox News, so many people being interviewed — and everyone doing the interviews — sound like morons. See Jim Jordan.”
In his 2020 collection of putdowns, Lamb pointed to how former President Donald Trump used words by responding “with the finesse of a knee to the groin. His comebacks are more like something you would hear on an elementary school playground.”
Cases in point — the demeaning nicknames he gave GOP and Democratic opponents, from “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little Marco” Rubio to “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and “Sleepy Joe” Biden.
In 2018, for example, Trump blasted French President Emmanuel Macron in a series of tweets about NATO and how European armies shouldn’t rely so much on U.S. support.
But Macron may have gotten the better of him when he told a French journalist, “I do not do policy or diplomacy by tweets.”
Smart political talk is the exception, not the rule. But since Trump left office, the level of debate seems to have improved, albeit slightly. Let’s hope our leaders can have more civilized discussions and fewer putdowns, although we don’t want to put Chris Lamb out of a job!
Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send it to email@example.com.