Belmont Club

It's only words

Deep breathleyAbraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg was expected to be anticlimatic. The man who was expected to set the crowd aflame was Edward Everett, a widely famed orator. Everett’s speech was the day’s principal “Gettysburg address.” His 13,607-word oration began:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

On it droned for two hours until it concluded with these polished lines.

“But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.”

Why was it forgotten when Lincoln’s was remembered? Possibly because Lincoln’s speech had the great virtue of not trying to be the main event itself. It was a commentary on events. The battlefield itself spoke and men heard it.  In a world where action answered action, all seemly remarks would be brief and therefore Lincoln’s remarks were seemly. But today, words have possessed us all, taken on a life of their own, like a devil or malevolent spirit. For example, Andrew Sullivan describes the martial qualities of Barack Obama, which in his view are far superior to John McCain’s, by describing BHO’s prowess in the news-cycle. “Obama’s strategic skills have been obvious for quite a while. He is perfectly prepared to hang back in a campaign, to allow attacks to pummel him and to lose news cycles or primaries to a media-centric opponent.  … America is at war with lethal enemies, its economy is teetering, its people are unsettled. And McCain gave us a 44-year-old former beauty queen as the person who could be asked to take over the White House in an emergency if anything happened to the oldest first-term president in American history. Tactically: daring. Strategically: potentially disastrous.” Perish the thought of a beauty queen at the White House when we could have the news-cycle tested Barack Obama instead.  Sullivan, of course, is not always the best judge of strategy. Readers may recall what Andrew Sullivan thought of General Petraeus in July of 2007:

Petraeus is either willing to be used by the Republican propaganda machine or he is part of the Republican propaganda machine. I’m beginning to suspect the latter. The only thing worse than a deeply politicized and partisan war is a deeply politicized and partisan commander. But we now know whose side Petraeus seems to be on: Cheney’s. Expect spin, not truth, in September.

If men who have hammers see every problem as a nail, pundits can have the understandable tendency to see everything, including war, as spin, spin and more spin. Reality becomes its representation, or rather, its misrepresentation. Sound and fury come to signify everything. Camille Paglia is impressed by Sarah Palin, but for the wrong reason:

“We may be seeing the first woman president. As a Democrat, I am reeling,” said Camille Paglia, the cultural critic. “That was the best political speech I have ever seen delivered by an American woman politician. Palin is as tough as nails.”  “Good Lord, we had barely 12 hours of Democrat optimism,” said Paglia. “It was a stunningly timed piece of PR by the Republicans.”

Both Sullivan’s and Paglia’s comments are disturbing in their own way. The idea of Obama accomplishing over Chicken Marengo what Napoleon achieved at Marengo and people qualifying for high office on the basis of a “political speech” is symptomatic of the trivialization of practically everything. What does “war” and “qualification” signify any more besides a talking point? David Brooks captured the pompous, yet unreal quality of modern political debate in a satiric, cutting, fictional convention speech. Brooks lampooned the phenomenon of words upstaging reality.  Brooks imagined a statesman telling his rapt audience:

My fellow Americans, it is an honor to address the Democratic National Convention at this defining moment in history. We stand at a crossroads at a pivot point, near a fork in the road on the edge of a precipice in the midst of the most consequential election since last year’s “American Idol.”

One path before us leads to the past, and the extinction of the human race. The other path leads to the future, when we will all be dead. We must choose wisely.

We must close the book on the bleeding wounds of the old politics of division and sail our ship up a mountain of hope and plant our flag on the sunrise of a thousand tomorrows with an American promise that will never die! For this election isn’t about the past or the present, or even the pluperfect conditional. It’s about the future, and Barack Obama loves the future because that’s where all his accomplishments are.

And the saddest thing of all if that if Brooks’ parody were delivered at a real convention, it might be actually be reported as the strongest political speech of a generation and send thrills coursing up and down the legs of the listeners. Until the next news cycle. The title video is here.

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