Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pat Roberts Hates The English Language

You might know Pat Roberts as the non-Sam Brownback senator from the great state of Kansas. Well, it's re-election time for the senator, and while he's almost certain to win with relative ease, it's always a good idea to make sure your constituents know you're on the ballot. So Roberts is running this ad throughout the state:

Roberts' message here is fairly clear: "Yes, there's a lot wrong with America today. But I've been here for awhile, and I have the influence to protect the aviation industry in Kansas." It's a classic incumbent tack. Emphasize constituent services and the extent to which you are an irreplaceable part of the voter's life.

I don't really care that much about the overall message, and I don't know enough about the situation to get into the Boeing/Airbus controversy. But something caught my ear the first time I saw the commercial, and it grates on me every time I see the spot:

"In Kansas, we build airplanes- the best."

What in the world does that mean? It's barely a sentence, and certainly not a coherent one.

Is Roberts trying to say, "In Kansas, we help build the best airplanes in the world?" Or is he trying to say, "Kansans build airplanes better than anyone else in the world?" Damned if I know.

Is this a big deal? On the grander scale of things, when you consider Darfur and Iraq and the Braves' outfield situation, not really. Both possible sentences work in that context. It was just lazy writing, which is surprising, considering the rest of the ad is quite slick and professional. (We can talk another day about the oh-so-popular advertising trope wherein a candidate visits a factory for a listening tour and ends up lecturing the workers while making decisive hand gestures.)

But the degradation of language, especially in the political sphere, is a poisonous development. Crafting beautiful language is difficult, to be sure, but writing a coherent sentence at the beginning of your advertisement shouldn't be that challenging. "I'm Pat Roberts, and I approve this message. Here in Kansas, we make the best airplanes in the world." There. Five seconds of effort.

You can see in the reaction to Barack Obama how the powerful regard political speech. Oratory isn't a parlor trick. It has intrinsic value. The ability to reach people and inspire them with your words is an extraordinary skill, and denigrating it as a meaningless bit of sorcery degrades us all. The 21st century presidency is, to a large extent, a communications position. The ability to effectively articulate your message to audiences both foreign and domestic is a crucial aspect of any modern presidential administration.

We trace our ideals to Rome and Athens, but those were societies that believed an ability to use words in defense of oneself was evidence of moral rectitude. While that's going a bit too far (many used car salesmen are quite eloquent), we have run in the opposite direction with too much celerity and fierceness. Any more, when a politician conspicuously lacks eloquence it is seen as a charming affectation, evidence of the man's deep connection to the average American.

In this case, the millions of Americans who have flocked to Obama, inspired by his oratory and his skill with the language, are showing more wisdom than the pundits and politicians who mock them for their excitement. Words matter. They've mattered since the day man grunted his first, barely coherent syllables.

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