Slogans in Seconds: Losing Weight in Political Debate
Thomas Jefferson’s oft-cited comment about government without newspapers or vice versa has a less-cited coda: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
What Jefferson did not envision two centuries ago was that his great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren would search some major newspapers in vain for an instance of extended political argument--a transcribed speech, for example, or a published debate.
The last century had its share of abbreviated messages, but the newspaper was not their home. Bits of information and slogans inhabited street and parade banners, professional torches and broadsides. Newspapers were made of longer stuff. Although partisan, the papers of Jefferson’s day were substantial.
Today the search for substance is more readily thwarted. Abbreviated forms of communication abound. Political ads average 30 seconds in length. In network news, candidates are rarely heard speaking for more than 15 seconds at a time. Even the answers in debates have grown shorter--down to one minute in a number of the contests of the past primary season.
Survival of the briefest also governs network coverage of conventions. Lost in CBS, NBC and ABC’s rush to learn Bush’s vice presidential pick and how would it play in Peoria were two important speeches: the first, by Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire, previewed the fall campaign’s indictments of the Democratic nominee; the second, by former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, cogently expressed the conservative philosophy of foreign affairs.
What substance TV reporters do find in speeches or debates is winnowed out in their search for the candidates’ strategic intent. When not focusing on the “horse race” and “game plans,” aspiring Dan Rathers fill our time with prophesies about a future we will momentarily discover for ourselves: Who will run? Who will win? Who’s up in the polls? Who’s down?
Substance is reduced to slogans and snippets. The 1980 primaries live in news stories as “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green”; the 1984 primaries as “Where’s the beef?” Repeated replays enable us to paraphrase television’s remembrance of debates past:
“There you go again.”
“Do you remember when you said ‘there you go again’?”
“I will not hold my opponents comparative youth and inexperience against him.”
Lost in post-debate coverage were the philosophies, policies and proposals of the debaters, their important similarities and differences, their alternative visions of the country’s future.
Voters without access to a good newspaper, C-SPAN or CNN must rely on information accumulated in bites of a quarter of a minute to a minute in length. Even those granules of information do not receive concentrated attention. Many who pick up political information from TV news and ads are passive, their political information gotten accidentally. Casual attention creates some superficial sense of politics but not a solid command of information, issues or candidates. Even at the most intense points in a senatorial campaign, more than half the population cannot identify the candidates.
Cheated by an educational system that no longer teaches students to produce or evaluate argument, the most educated electorate in American history routinely chooses old movies or video rentals over convention speeches, and prefers soaps and sitcoms to political substance. So “Peyton Place” and “Petticoat Junction” drew larger audiences than Barry M. Goldwater’s conversation with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1964; “Jaws” swallowed Roger Mudd’s award-winning interview with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1980; and video-rental stores experienced such a run of customers during this summer’s conventions that the political parties should consider putting voter-registration desks there in 1992.
When blamed for the decay in the quality of political discourse, political consultants turn the indictment back on their accusers. A substantial speech can’t attract an audience as large as “Dynasty” or even “Dialing for Dollars,” one practitioner told me. “It’s sports they’ll watch so it’s sports they’ll get.”
Besides, speaking substantially produces pain but little gain. The public is ill-disposed to listen to substance, the press ill-disposed to report it. As does the opposing candidate’s staff, the press will listen attentively for slips or strategic missteps. Pens are poised and cameras set to capture Richard M. Nixon declaring “I am not a crook,” Michael S. Dukakis encouraging Iowa farmers to grow Belgian endive, George Bush referring to his grandchildren as “little brown ones,” Ronald Reagan declaring that facts are “stupid things.” Seeing everything to lose and nothing to gain, in 1986 many candidates abandoned public speechmaking entirely. Campaigns became ad wars.
The speeches that have adapted to the demands of the press and the dispositions of television viewers are the public equivalent of the Johnny Carson monologue--strings of randomly assembled one-liners and anecdotes. No camera crew will have to look long for a 30-second sound bite. No detailed argumentative substructure will drive viewers away.
Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards’ speech at the Democratic Convention is illustrative. It contained one story of her memories of summer nights listening to the grown-ups talk; one letter from a constituent; humanizing references to granddaughter Lily and the future, and some now very familiar 30-second sound bites, including: “For eight straight years George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about. And now that he’s after a job he can’t get appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America. He’s found child care. He’s found education. Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Endangered in the rush to abbreviate and the crush of news McNuggets and spot ads is our capacity to create and thoughtfully consider discourse that invites a reconsideration of who we are as individuals and as a people. Our ability to create reasoned, informed public assent has waned. The great modern exercises of the old eloquence--George Marshall framing the Marshall plan, Winston Churchill warning about the descent of an Iron Curtain, Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy arguing for arms limitation, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming that he had a dream and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts repudiating the war in Vietnam--stand out because the rhetorical terrain surrounding them is so flat.
Adlai E. Stevenson was offended by the notion that ideas should be cut to fit the lengths in which television metered out its time. As he ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 1952 and 1956, his paid air time sometimes ended before his speeches did. His aides despaired. Unlike the robber Procrustes who amputated the limbs of his victims to ensure that they fit his bed, Stevenson refused to shave ideas to suit the clock.
As we undertake the serious business of electing the 41st President, we might honor Stevenson’s memory, and that of Jefferson and Lincoln as well, by seeking out and savoring developed discourse--discourse that defines its terms, grounds itself in a sense of history, discusses alternative points of view, fairly characterizes all sides of a case, warrants its claims with evidence, dramatizes without demagoguery and only then concludes.