Magazine article The American Prospect

Language and Leadership

Magazine article The American Prospect

Language and Leadership

Article excerpt

Ever since George W. Bush took office, we have marveled at his ability to speak as a moderate, govern as a radical, and not be held accountable by the press or the voters. Democrats, meanwhile, have struggled to find their voice. In this issue of the Prospect, in the centennial year of George Orwell's birth, we address the enduring question of politics and language, newly relevant in the era of Bush. We asked three distinguished linguists (Deborah Tannen, Geoffrey Nunberg and George Lakoff) to examine how Republicans twist language, and we invited an expert on social class and politics (Andrew Levison), as well as President Clinton's former speechwriter (David Kusnet), to address the Democrats' speech pathologies.

Then, right at press time, something surprising happened. A Democratic politician delivered a potent speech that summed up the case against Bush with simple eloquence. The speech connected Bush's far-flung deceptions, forcefully and without being shrill. It modeled for Democratic candidates how to narrate Bush's liabilities as a leader. It was probably the best opposition speech since January 200l.

The unlikely orator was Al Gore.

THE SPEECH, DELIVERED AUG. 7 AT NEW YORK UNIVERSITY to College Democrats and co-sponsored by, enumerated what Gore politely termed the false impressions behind the rush to war with Iraq: that Saddam Hussein was partly responsible for the September 11 attacks; that he was working closely with Osama bin Laden, and on the verge of developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; that our GIs would be welcomed as liberators; that the rest of the world would soon fall in line.

"Now, of course, everybody knows that every single of these impressions was just dead wrong," Gore said. He went on to rebut parallel "mistaken assumptions" about the economy, that "the tax cuts would unleash a lot of new investment that would create lots of new jobs ... and "most of the benefits would go to average middle-income families;" that new growth would spare us new deficits.

"Here, too," Gore said, "every single one of these impressions turned out to be wrong." Gore built slowly and systematically to the source of these "mistaken assumptions": George W. Bush. The president's "selective use of the best evidence" on Iraq is of a piece with "the way he intentionally distorted the best available evidence on climate change," and "rejected the best available evidence" on the economy, Gore concluded. His particulars added up to one common theme and the president's Achilles' heel: Bush is simply not to be trusted. …

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