Unctuous, but at Least They Need Us

Article excerpt

Politicians in a democracy must negotiate the conflict between dignity and self-promotion. It is hard to maintain one's dignity while one is anxious to please as many people as possible, and to offend as few as possible. Pity the speechwriters who must come up with words that will be safe yet original, bland yet daring, bromides that sound heartfelt.

How glad they must be when they hit on something real yet acceptable.

This dilemma may explain the trend whereby candidates speak in favor of morality, advocate family values, celebrate divine guidance and decency. Is anybody swayed by this stuff? Do the polls and focus groups indicate that a plurality of likely voters show a preference for candidates who advocate good over evil?

When politicians talk about God more frequently and more familiarly than Abraham Lincoln ever did, or good behavior more than Jesus Christ ever did, I think of my friend Fred, a wise and respected professor of literature. On the first day of his introductory course in the comedies, histories, and tragedies, Fred entered the room and before saying a word strode to the blackboard and took up a piece of chalk.

With the students watching in silence, he wrote on the board a simple admonition in capital letters: Don't praise Shakespeare.

It is presumptuous, as well as boring and somewhat insulting to your audience, to offer your celebration where it is not needed. We voters are like weary English professors reading the insincere essays submitted by students trying to show that they piously worship great literature.

Like those professors, we can be pleased by any show of insouciance, no matter how silly. When Jesse Jackson talks about "staying out of the Bushes," the phrase has no particular content, and only a moderate amount of wit. It's pretty lame, really. But in the context of sanctimonious speeches, many of us cheer up, as at a stroke of great wit. Senator Lieberman's vision of his father loading the bakery truck for an all-night shift succeeded because it had an ingredient of vision beyond the fact that it courted our sympathy. …