Four Score and Seven Cliches Ago
Great Britain is fed up with America's current crop of potentially great communicators. Frustrated by the cavalier approach to proper English being practiced by the candidates for next year's presidential election (and apparently inspired by our Fortnight of Cliches), a British newspaper called for sample sentences of empty inspiration. One winning entry--"I hear what you're saying but, with all due respect, it's not exactly rocket science"--was OK, I guess, but hardly a match for the statements on offer from the candidates themselves. I won't name names, but here are some potential leaders of the free world, in their own words:
"I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation."
"We can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potential."
"We're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here."
"It's time to take stock and be honest with ourselves. We're going to have to do a lot of things better."
"Its time for innovation and transformation in Washington."
Some of these statements are cliches in the classic sense, but most of them are something more nuanced. They're cliched--contrived statements that sound good but under scrutiny don't offer anything. They're the sort of things that make you shout "Whoop whoop" at a rally, but you wouldn't say them to your boss and expect a raise. In the words of William Shakespeare, they're just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Such is the lingua franca of political campaigns, however. Candidates numbering in the double-digits compete for airtime on television and radio programs that allocate time for reporting in increments of seconds, not hours, and so the strategy necessarily shifts from articulation to inspiration. One lays claim to the mantle of "candidate of the American dream"; one calls dibs on solidarity with God and the common people all at once; one offers a political party a messianic vision; one comes across as honest and humble as the day is long; and one claims outsider status in an insider terrain that's out of ideas.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are our candidates. I don't begrudge them their meager choices of words, however; to be honest I feel sorry for them. They have to translate their likely bold ideas about governance into the sweet nothings that we've long become accustomed to hearing. The only things more cliched in a presidential campaign than empty words, perhaps, are empty gestures and attack ads.
We'll take our candidates to task for those cliches soon enough, I'm afraid. The audience of a presidential campaign--from potential voters to media outlets--is nearly as predictable as the candidates. It's worth noting that I read this piece in the Cedar Rapids Gazette ("an independent newspaper established in 1883"), but it was a column that originates in the Washington Post, and the author was writing about an unnamed British newspaper. So in short order the idea that presidential candidates speak in meaningless political cliches is becoming a meaningless editorial cliche. The chickens, you might say, have come home to roost.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman
at June 27, 2007 8:25 AM