Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Convention Addresses II

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton's address to the Convention was a mess - probably an intentional mess. The address will do the Kerry-Edwards campaign effort little if any good. In expressing this view, I agree with the Viking and respectfully dissent from the views of almost every other commenter, including Dick Morris and Jim Taranto.

Before Mr. Clinton spoke there was fear among the Kerry-Edwards campaign and the mainstream liberal media that he would "overshadow" the nominee - and that his speech would mostly advance his own interests.  And exactly was feared would happen did happen - just not quite in the way some had thought it might happen. Yes, Mr. Clinton's address requires one to admire his ability to achieve his effects without his audience and critics catching on as to how he does it. Of course, that too further advances his interests.

The best way to evaluate the former President's address is to compare it to the many addresses he has made over the years on his own behalf. Ideally for the Kerry camp, Mr. Clinton's address would have resembled the many addresses he has given to advance his own interests but directed entirely at advancing Senator Kerry's bid for the White House. Bill Clinton's speech was not that.

Mr. Clinton famously confided in Tony Blair that Mr. Clinton expected to be remembered as a man who mostly won elections - to Mr. Blair's reported horror. Bill Clinton's speeches generally included things that were necessary to get him elected and, once in office, to maintain his personal support even at the cost of depriving him of any significant mandate - and for no other aims. By the time he first ran for President Mr. Clinton knew that memorable phrases and clear meaning were not what got a Democrat struggling to patch together an incoherent coalition elected to, or maintained in, the Presidency. Instead, Mr. Clinton's speeches were characterized by vague and ambiguous phrasings, meaning very different things to very different groups. Not for him was there to be any "ask not what your country can do for you" silliness. And during his eight full years in highest office he did not trouble himself with the likes of "touched the face of God" or "tear down this wall." The closest Mr. Clinton came to a memorable speech was perhaps his expressed desires to make abortion "safe, legal and rare" and to "end welfare as we know it" - the latter a catchy phrase that he came to regret when a Republican Congress used it to impose real welfare reform.

But Bill Clinton's own speeches were effective. Especially after the big health care disaster and initial budget success of the first year, a typical Clintonian State of the Union effort consisted of a string of minor proposals, a recitation of minor accomplishments, some anecdotes and some fairly well crafted partisan name calling. It worked. Conservatives hated and condescended. Liberals knew he was handing them a very dubious bill of goods. "Good" speechwriters complained that his addresses were flaccid. From the standpoint of classical or standard rhetoric, they were flaccid - much more flaccid than was his Convention address, which is relatively focused and full of pseudo-rhetorical, ultimately ineffective phrases: Strength and wisdom are not conflicting values and Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people, in a world in which we act unilaterally when we can, and cooperate when we have to and Sure these countries are competing with us for good jobs, but how can we enforce our trade laws against our bankers? This kind of thing sounds good to a partisan delegate - but it's nearly worthless for getting more votes.

Although, and in large part because, they were not clear or moving, Bill Clinton's speeches were effective. And they were long. A good indication of how much Mr. Clinton's convention address differed from his most effective efforts is the length of his convention address: about 25 minutes. That was much too short. Some people require a lot of time, and Mr. Clinton is one of them. Quality writers, such as Peggy Noonan, believe that a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. You have to decide. But Bill Clinton's most effective speeches were generally not "about" something - they were usually about "everything" - and were often criticized for being about almost "nothing." He refused to decide, he "downsized" the Presidency and he talked and talked for very long periods about his "nothings." And, in the end, he convinced a lot of people that he should be and remain President while presenting little in the way of his own substantive agenda. Bill Clinton's speech should have convinced a lot of people that John Kerry should be President while presenting little in the way of a substantive agenda. It didn't. In his own speeches Mr. Clinton's cadences and local intonations had a cumulative effect, like the almost unconscious, cumulative linguistic "rhythms" spread over much time that Proust points out render some writers - and some composers, such as Wagner - ultimately persuasive. Those who take Strunk & White as their bible will never understand. But, then, E.B. White didn't write À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu or Parsival- he wrote nice little books about a spider, a mouse and a swan. Mr. Clinton's Convention address was nice, too.

Mr. Clinton's Convention speech was "clever." And it is true that his cleverest rhetorical device was to cast himself, repeatedly, as an ungrateful beneficiary of President Bush's tax cuts. The problem with this clever device is that it doesn't transfer from speaker to listener. Yes, a newly-minted multimillionaire such as Mr. Clinton can "at first" feel like he wants to thank President Bush for his tax cut, until he realizes that "all of you" had to pay for it. But for the ordinary taxpayer who received a tax refund check was perfectly happy to keep it - without qualm. In fact, for most people receiving the tax refund check was the second best thing about the cuts - second best after spending that same refund. This "clever" device meant Mr. Clinton repeatedly drew attention to the best aspects of the cuts - instead of an endless, dripping series of anecdotes and observations about the putative negative consequences of those cuts. Something like those endless, dripping series of anecdotes and observations in the speeches he used to run for and occupied the office of the Presidency. Even his repeatedly casting himself as a tax cut beneficiary cast as a beneficary a person the audience liked.. Mentioning Mr. Scaife or some other ultra-wealthy beneficiary instead would have been much less "clever" but far more emotionally effective. And this was by no means the only point in his address at which Mr. Clinton subtly substituted entertaining "cleverness" for broader "effectiveness."

Mr. Clinton's own speeches were never "clever" "Clever" is what may be needed to get one elected in France. But while "clever" can work in the United States, it is a dangerous approach. In the United States even the expression "too clever by half" is, well, too clever by half for almost any broad political speech. And, worse for a man who sincerely struggled with his questioner over the meaning of "is," a "clever" speech almost demands clarity. And, sure enough, his Convention speech achieved a clarity that his typical speeches completely lacked. That clarity - along with its brevity - is a good indication that something went seriously wrong with this speech, which has been broadly and casually characterized as "demagogic" even by some of its admirers. A speech easily labeled "demagogic" is unlikely to be effective, and is much more likely to be thought effective by second-rate politicians than by ordinary voters.

Another clear and, for Senator Kerry, uncomfortable, aspect of Mr. Clinton's speech was his particular and somewhat peculiar form of praise for Kerry's Vietnam service:

During the Vietnam War, many young men--including the current president, the vice president and me--could have gone to Vietnam but didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it too. Instead he said, send me.
Mr. Clinton's reference to the Senator's "privileged background" is gratuitious and negative with respect to John Kerry. Are we supposed to be grateful for Mr. Kerry not using a "priviledge" we do not possess? The reference also constitutes subtle self-stroking since Mr. Clinton did not come from a "priviledged background" but avoided service anyway. And, of course, John Kerry didn't say "send me."  Senator Kerry had no choice but to go into the military (or seek conscious objector status, flee the country or the like) since his draft board had just turned down his request for an extension of his deferment to allow him to study in Paris.  Further, as most college age men believed at that time, enlisting in the Navy was a "safe" alternative to being drafted into the Army. When Senator Kerry volunteered for Swift Boat duty, it was blockade duty, not heavy combat. He got into combat because only because the rules of engagement were changed by Admiral Zumwalt when he began operation Sealords. Once Kerry was in combat, he gamed the system to get out of it as quickly as possible. But he did serve with a courage in very difficult conditions. Those conditions may not have been quite as difficult as he has since led the public to believe - but I view that as quibbling. Bill Clinton did not emphasize John Kerry's courage in combat - Mr. Clinton chose to emphasize exactly the most problematic and potentially embarrassing aspects of the Senator's presentation of his service record.  But Senator Kerry can hardly complain  about Mr. Clinton's approach, since the nominee's own vanity has often led him to stress exactly the same problematic aspects of his record. Mr. Clinton has always been skilled at using his opponents vanities against them - just ask Newt Gingrich. And, once again, by pointing out that Mr. Bush has a service record better than his own, Mr. Clinton defanged Senator Kerry's own argument. After all, if Mr. Clinton - who was never in the service - is presented at that podium as an ultra-successful President, what is left of the Senator's argument that the President is relatively deficient for want of a service record equal to the Senator's own?  In such ways "cleverness" erodes "effectiveness" - but can make for a more entertaining speech.

One could go on and on. It is interesting (at least to me) that the redoubtable and perceptive Peggy Noonan did not include Bill Clinton's Convention address in the ones she reviewed so perceptively for the Journal. And I agree with Dick Morris that the former President committed a "masterpiece" here - but not a masterpiece that Senator Kerry should covet. Bill Clinton does not want John Kerry to become President because Hillary Clinton doesn't want that. But neither Clinton would have been served by a speech that didn't seem to push all the right buttons - to line up all those right, ripe issues Mr. Morris notes in his article. But raise them in bloodless fashion - each one drained quietly like a butterfly drawn dry by a naturally skilled spider.

Yes, indeed, a "masterpiece."

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