Language and Leadership

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 2001.

The unlikely orator was Al Gore.

The speech, delivered Aug. 7 at New York University to College Democrats and co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, 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.

The full speech is posted here.

Who had written this speech? We know that George W. Bush, speaking off the cuff, is painfully clumsy whenever he tries to articulate more than two unscripted sentences. Bush's eloquence on formal occasions is a tribute to the strategic genius of Karl Rove coupled with the elegant phrasing of chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. This team could make a trained monkey sound like Churchill. Where had Al Gore, who repeatedly stumbled in 2000 campaign speeches, found such a craftsman?

A little telephone reporting revealed a second surprise. The author was Gore himself. Gore currently has no political staff. True to his history as a onetime journalist and lifelong policy junkie, Gore spent several weeks puzzling out how Bush was getting away with it; then Gore put all the pieces together. Indeed, the speech does not read like anything written by a speechwriter. It has no applause lines, no cadence, no slogans -- just a systematic and devastating indictment.

Imagine what life has been like for Gore these last 32 months. Contemplating the stolen 2000 election (which he should have won going away), Gore must be reliving something akin to the immortal Saturday Night Live sketch from 1988 that showed Bush I (played by Dana Carvey) bumbling his way to victory while a cerebral Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz) says "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

Gore, according to friends, wanted both to get his mind around Bush's game and make it safer for the Democratic field to be more aggressive and comprehensive. As a noncandidate, Gore could take risks that a candidate might shun. Even his body language suggested a new level of comfort in his own skin.

In this speech, Gore attained much that eluded him in the 2000 campaign: dignity, humility, authenticity, authority, even real eloquence. By exposing the lies in the Bush presidency and modeling constructive opposition for the Democratic field without upstaging it, maybe Gore will achieve something redemptive.

It is difficult for a defeated presidential candidate (or even a former president) to devise a constructive public role, though ex-politicians as diverse as Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Richard Nixon have managed it. It may be too late for Gore to be elected president, but not too late to inspire his party and the voters. In the end, effective political language is less about rhetoric than about leadership.

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