The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Speeches usually use words to express ideas. Unless you are Kevin McCarthy.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol on Nov. 19. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)
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For someone who wants to be speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy is very bad at speaking.

Usually, when you give a speech (one example would be the Gettysburg Address, which McCarthy invoked several times during his remarks), you try to express ideas using words. Unless you are Kevin McCarthy.

“Lithuania has a long history,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) informed us, almost two hours into his speech, and truly out of nowhere, “with the big controlling countries next to them that try to push them around.”

(This speech, for context, was delivered in the middle of the debate over the Build Back Better bill, in order to delay its passage by what turned to be 8½ hours. It was meant to relate in some way to the Build Back Better bill.)

McCarthy told us about six of the people in the painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” He said how big the painting was. He wished that Donald Trump had a Nobel Peace Prize. He did a lot.

I thought that in a speech of this length (you could fit about 200 Gettysburg Addresses inside it), McCarthy would detail all his objections to the Build Back Better bill in great specificity. He did not.

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Instead, this speech was the rhetorical equivalent of when Victor Hugo stops a book in the middle of the action to tell a long-winded story about the invention of sewers, except that when Hugo does it, it is charming and there are not several Republicans visibly staving off sleep behind him.

McCarthy related the time he brought cookies and antifreeze to a woman whose car was having trouble at the entrance to his neighborhood. The whole neighborhood brought her antifreeze! Even his neighbor who works in the oil industry and won’t be his neighbor much longer (said ominously) gave her antifreeze! And that’s the American way! (It was unclear how this related to Build Back Better.)

He told us about movies he had seen when he was younger. “I remember my high school, they had one of those Hallmark shows,” McCarthy said, “about the Soviet Union invading us. A ‘Red Dawn.’ ” In what universe is “Red Dawn” a Hallmark property? Now, I am imagining a “Red Dawn” that is about a businesswoman discovering that the true meaning of Christmas … is communism!

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He tried to talk about moments in history that had happened in the House chamber. “They’ve happened on this floor! The 13th Amendment! A day that’ll live in infamy!” (These are definitely two different things but his rhetorical style was not calculated to make it sound like they were.) “We were bombed by Japan! … That Congress didn’t turn around and say let’s take away work requirements. Let’s give incentives to people that are here come illegally, and let’s spend nothing on our defense.” This is what is known as a stretch.

Mostly he offered a lot of SHOUTING and EMPHASIS at moments that you would not expect SHOUTING or EMPHASIS. For instance, I can see shouting “A DAY THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY!” but I am really confused about McCarthy’s equal emphasis on “five REPUBLICANS … AND FIVE DEMOCRATS … under the AGE of FORTY!” who attended a leadership program with him.

And yes, he paraphrased the Gettysburg Address. Personally, if I were in the process of delivering a speech this abysmally pointless, I would not do so, for the same reason I would not invite Anya Taylor-Joy to be my bridesmaid. If McCarthy had delivered the Gettysburg Address, it would have sounded like this, apparently: “When we work for and by and of the people, we will always lead.”

“I’m proud Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president,” he said, adding later, “What if Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated? Malice towards none. There would be no Jim Crow laws. Mr. Speaker, I’d love to debate Jim Crow one day.” (Does he think Jim Crow is a person? Does he want to argue for or against Mr. Crow? What is his vision here exactly?) “ABRAHAM LINCOLN, IF HE WAS HERE TODAY, he would tell you, and, Mr. Speaker, I believe he would look to your side of the aisle, he would say, ‘Be fearless when it comes to votes. Don’t blame others.’ ” Lincoln is, I guess, a horoscope now?

McCarthy’s speech did many things in its 8½ hours, but “clearly, and in detail, explain his objections to the contents of the bill, other than that Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have liked it” was not among them. It’s a shame we never got to find out what was the matter with Build Back Better. Perhaps if he’d had a little more time.