"Loud and clear": That, in the collective judgment of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, is how the president of the United States "came through" in his address last week on the state of the Union. It was a theme echoed in other editorial columns and other spaces devoted to the expression of opinion: George Bush "came through loud and clear."
Maybe it's a matter of definition. As an expression of American war aims in the Persian Gulf and of support for the troops engaged in combat there, the speech was indeed loud and generally, if not entirely, clear. But as an exercise in oratory it was something else altogether: a bromidic homily distinguished only for its utter poverty of language and imagination.
That this was so is not entirely the fault of George Bush. The art of presidential utterance, rarely an especially exalted one, has fallen on hard times in the postwar years. How many presidential speeches of this period do more than a handful of Americans remember? Dwight Eisenhower's farewell warning against the influence of the "military-industrial complex"; John Kennedy's inaugural address; Lyndon Johnson's impassioned plea for the enactment of civil rights legislation; Ronald Reagan's brief remarks after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle -- that's just about it. The rest is lost, perhaps mercifully so, in a fog of cliches and platitudes, most of them manufactured by the White House speech factory.
The very existence of that factory is part of the problem; speechwriting by committee is an inherently reductive process in which life and energy are squeezed out in the interests of consensus and compromise. But the larger difficulty lies in the constraints on oratory that have been imposed by television. This inherently intimate medium provides rich opportunities for the speaker who is able to master the conversational style, but when television moves into the arena where declamation customarily has been employed, both the medium and the person using it are far less comfortable.
Think back to the great presidential speeches, most of which were given by Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, and the first quality you notice about them is their elocutionary style; they were written to be presented in spacious public places and thus to be delivered in what used to be called "ringing" voices. Lincoln's second inaugural address, Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor address to Congress: These benchmarks of American oratory were meant to move and inspire, and were couched in the grand language of the public forum.
But that same language, read (or, worse, shouted) through the television screen, loses its grandeur and seems merely overblown, if not downright embarrassing. The culprit isn't broadcasting per se; as Roosevelt and innumerable others proved beyond doubt, radio is a singularly effective medium not merely for conversational fireside chats but also for powerful, calculatedly rhetorical speechifying. Rather it seems to be that when television shrinks the image of a person addressing a crowd, it somehow shrinks his words as well; what is meant to be hortatory comes through as thin, wheezy, inadequate.
Certainly that was the case with George Bush's address last Tuesday night. Leaving aside his own inadequacies as an orator, which it is pointless to hold against him, the speech simply failed to do what its authors clearly intended: It didn't inspire and it didn't clarify. If it was interrupted on numerous occasions by applause, that had nothing to do with its language and everything to do with its sentiments, which so far as the troops overseas are concerned were utterly unexceptionable; it would have been truly astonishing if Congress, which claps automatically when it hears the right buzzwords, had declined to applaud.
You want buzzwords? Bush had buzzwords. The principal themes of the speech were, in foreign affairs, "a new world order" and "the hard work of freedom," and, in domestic affairs, "the power and choice of individuals." Subject any of these to moderately close scrutiny and what becomes immediately clear is that none of them means anything, or, to put it another way, all of them mean whatever anyone wants them to mean. They're empty words, devoid of real meaning and clarity.
Thus it went throughout the speech. If it sounded banal over the air, try reading it. The war is "a great struggle in the skies and on the seas and sands," waged against a man who "violated everything the community of nations holds dear," its ultimate purpose "a world worthy of our struggle and worthy of our children's future," a world led "away from the dark chaos of dictators, toward the brighter promise of a better day." Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union are being conducted in the hope of "a more peaceful future for all mankind," while "the triumph of democratic ideas" around the world confirms "the wisdom of our nation's founders."
Speaking of whom: America is "an inspiring example of freedom and democracy," which is why "the hopes of humanity turn to us." We Americans have "a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom," which we do with our "indomitable spirit" because "America has always led by example." That is why "if anyone tells you America's best days are behind her, they're looking the wrong way." America is "the beacon of freedom in a searching world."
As for America at home, it is reaching for "the promise of a renewed America," one in which each of us joins "the community of conscience," does "the hard work of freedom," serves "a shining purpose, the illumination of a thousand points of light." It is time to "unleash the potential of our most precious resource, our citizens, our citizens themselves." "We all have something to give," we citizens of this "nation of rock-solid realism and clear-eyed idealism," qualities that have so much to do with "what America is all about." We can make an "investment in America's future," we can achieve "excellence in education," we can "put more power and opportunity in the hands of the individual," we can achieve "freedom from crime and the fear that stalks our cities," we can even "look beyond the next election, to the next generation."
On and on it went, banality following banality in a succession not once interrupted by an original or interesting phrase or idea. To be sure this is scarcely unusual for the State of the Union address, the underlying purpose of which seems to be the presentation of a presidential shopping list to which no one pays any attention once its delivery is completed. But we expect, and deserve, more than mere bromides at what Bush himself called, however unimaginatively, "a defining hour" in American history; but bromides are what we got, and little more.
Yes, it is true that bromides and cliches often get that way because they give voice to truths; the sentiments Bush expressed about the country, its people and its purposes are shared by most of us, and there are only so many ways they can be put into words. But spare us, if you will, the pretense that reiteration of the most conventional wisdom in the most conventional language is either eloquent or profound, not to mention "loud and clear." It's merely speechwriting on automatic pilot, which is exactly what George Bush served up last Tuesday night.