Friday, February 3, 2012

Talk, The Bane of the Politician

I read today an anthropologist’s opinion that the human race has only been capable of speech for the last 500 thousand years and that a modern politician speaks more words in one week than the whole human race spoke in the first 499 thousand years. Well . . . the first part of that sentence is true – or at least it is true that I read that. But the last part of the sentence is a bit of an exaggeration.

But only a small one, relatively speaking. It is true that a modern politician in the United States is required to be talking almost non-stop during his waking hours from the day he declares his intention to run for office until the day he wins the election or is eliminated from the race. Gone is the day when a politician sits on his front porch in Ohio and waits for reporters to come and interview him there. And gone is the day when Abraham Lincoln could be elected without leaving Springfield, Illinois to travel all over the country giving speeches.

Of course the result of our present insistence that our politicians speak and debate and appear as guests on talk shows is that they often say too much. I’m not implying that they are giving us too much information useful in deciding whether they are worthy of our vote. We get very little of that except by inference. What we are getting is an odd mixture of canned campaign jargon and inadvertent faux pas. It is the latter that has served to winnow the field of Republican contenders this political season. When their gaffs reach a certain critical mass they begin to fade away.

Currently in the news is the statement by Governor Romney that he “isn’t worried about the very poor”. “Heartless!” cries the media and his opponents, both Republican and Democratic. How could he say that? What kind of monster must he be? Well, in actuality he did say it, but he said much more, and that “much more” explains, to any fair-minded person what he meant. He believes the very poor are being adequately served by our government programs (and he went on to say that if those programs need some fixing that can be done) but his concern is that the needs of the middle class are not being addressed.

I won’t argue the merits of his case here but only point out that he is being unfairly and inaccurately quoted with no regard for his true stated meaning.

Our politicians need to take care with what they say and how they say it. But our modern world puts any public figure in an almost impossible situation with cameras and reporters on their case 24 hours a day. If they speak they are pilloried for what they say. If they don’t speak they are criticized for not being “transparent.” It is hard to imagine the pressure they are under.

We need to grant them – and they need to take – time to read, and listen, and reflect. I can’t imagine that any of the current Republican candidates has done anything but eat, sleep, travel, and speak for the last six months. It shows in the string of gaffs they have made. We deserve better from them than we are getting. So far, for all the words spoken, we know very little about how any of these men would work to solve the pressing problems of our day. The glib statements repeated hour after hour are worse that useless as indicators of real policy. They are “red meat” thrown out to feed the appetites of constituencies the politicians think they are appealing to.

Perhaps we need to give each candidate two or three hours of prime time to explain his vision for our country and his plans to achieve that vision. Then those video programs could be made available for replay on the Internet for those who wish to review them. And then we should forbid them to speak to us again until the election is over.

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