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How Long, O Lord?

Critics of modern American politics often blame public-relations consultants and their never-ending quest to manipulate the media for what the critics see as a triumph of style over substance in political discourse.

We would like to believe that, if only because it points toward a conclusion that politics in this country would take on real meaning if the political consultants would just go away. But tidy explanations of anything as untidy as the democratic process tend to fall apart when tested, and this one is no different.

We recently found the right test to apply to the notion while browsing through American Notes, a smallish book written by Charles Dickens after his first visit to the United States in 1842--a visit that took him and his wife from New York, Boston and Washington to the “Far West,” where he was enchanted by Cincinnati.

While in Washington, Dickens sat through some speeches on the floors of the Senate and the House of Representatives. He was not impressed.

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“The feature in oratory which appears to be the most practiced, and the most relished, is the constant repetition of the same idea or shadow of an idea in fresh words; and the inquiry out of doors is not, ‘What did he say?’ but ‘How long did he speak?’ ”

No television cameras into which those members could mug. No political consultants. No difference, that we can see, between the politics of 1842 and those of 1987.


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