“No!” you shout, flailing wildly about like a moth trapped in a screen door. “Please, don’t. I find that when people share things with me, it is usually totally indistinguishable from their simply telling me things.”
But by this time it is already too late, and your interlocutor has launched into a complicated story about How He Came To Understand What Friendship Really Meant or This Really Moving Thing A Humble Dentist Once Told Him About The Way Government Ought To Work.
Just-announced Republican 2012 candidate Tim Pawlenty never actually utters this dreaded phrase, but you can hear echoes of it in his announcement, with his desire to “try something a little unusual in politics. I’m just going to tell the truth” because “It’s long past time for America’s president — and anyone who wants to be president — to be straight with the American people.”
Usually when people tell you that they are going to tell you the honest truth that the government has kept from you, you inch away from them on the subway. But this is different. It is about Telling It Like It Is. The op-ed uses the word “truth” 16 times.
In fact, there’s a certain perhaps calculated naivete to this approach.
Tim Pawlenty’s campaign itinerary sounds like the campaign itinerary you come up with in fifth grade for a civics class project.
He’s going to Iowa to tell the truth about farm subsidies! He’s going to Wall Street to tell the truth about how the bailouts have to stop! He’s going to Florida to tell the seniors that their entitlement programs need to be changed.
He is America’s Fifth Grade dream. “Conventional political wisdom says that it’s better to tell people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. But conventional political wisdom is what got us into this fiscal mess in the first place.”
Still, this approach has always struck a chord with American voters.
Especially in times of crisis, we like the sense that our leaders are talking directly to us. Not at us. Not over us and slightly to the left, like Michele Bachmann.
Not through a teleprompter.
That was certainly the money shot of the Tim Pawlenty announcement video – the vacant teleprompter, spooling out its words to the massive stage.
That teleprompter has come to symbolize everything that people complain about when they complain about Barack Obama — it’s slim, might have been imported, and sometimes uses words that are hard to pronounce.
When someone stands behind a teleprompter, it indicates that he is Delivering A Speech Of Some Kind. He is reading you Prepared Remarks. He is not sharing you the raw, unvarnished truth about whatever it is. It may be the truth, but that’s what telemarketers are for — to supply the varnish.
The Pawlenty op-ed (in USA Today, no less) and video mark him soundly as the candidate who gives Talks, not the candidate who gives Speeches. He’s here to Share things with us. No teleprompter. No tropes.
And that might be critical.
We’re getting almost worrisomely nostalgic for “plain speaking.”
We didn’t think we’d get to this point so fast. If President Bush 43 ever used a rhetorical trope, it seemed as much a surprise to him as it was to us. He always had a bewildered air when delivering Speeches, like he couldn’t tell why the words were in front of him and thought that if he read them aloud, someone might walk over and explain. There was a vaguely apologetic air to all his public addresses. “These are Speeches,” he seemed to be saying. “I am a man who gives Talks.”
Barack Obama is quite the opposite. If anything, he seems apologetic when delivering Talks. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like to have a beer with him. But put him behind a podium and hand him a rhetorical trope, and he seems at home in a way that no one since Kennedy has.
At first, we liked that. After all, President Obama comes to us by way of speeches. Not just speeches — campaign speeches. From the Democratic National Convention eight years ago to the address on race to the acceptance speech, we’ve been watching him unfold his thoughts and depict his experience through the lens of carefully crafted words. “Amazing!” we said, hitting the voting lever. “We are going to get some quality rhetoric!”
But, so far, we haven’t.
“We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose,” said Mario Cuomo. But President Obama hasn’t even tried to govern in poetry. Winning the Future? Sputnik moments? Where are the rhetorical tropes we were promised?
Now along comes Pawlenty with abundant promises of prose.
Too bad it’s campaign season.