"Eager to preserve the English language against a rising tide of nonsense," a British newspaper last week asked readers to compose a piece of prose "crammed with as many infuriating phrases as possible." The results make for entertaining reading.
"I hear what you're saying but, with all due respect, it's not exactly rocket science," begins one excellent example. "The bottom line is you wear your heart on your sleeve and, when all is said and done, this is all part and parcel of the ongoing bigger picture." Another declared, "[L]et's face facts here, this could so be my conduit to a whole new ball game. Awesome, or what?"
Some of the entries mocked bureaucratese: "Our own cost/benefit analysis of the ongoing target shortfall is that this predicament needs to be addressed proactively." Others celebrated slang, either American ("chill to the max") or British ("I was gobsmacked") in origin. And all of them suggested an explanation for why it seems so difficult to follow the ludicrously early U.S. presidential campaign: Too many of the candidates speak in prose crammed with as many infuriating phrases as possible.
The worst offender—and this week's column is officially apolitical—is Hillary Clinton, who is "running for president because I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation." Clinton also believes that "we can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potentials," and that "the foundation of a strong economy is the investments we make in each other." Who could possibly disagree?
But maybe that's what it takes to lead the opinion polls, at least at this stage of the game. "Folks, we're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here," said Fred Thompson recently, speaking to an audience of apparently enthusiastic Virginia Republicans. And no wonder they liked him. This is a man who believes that "it's time to take stock and be honest with ourselves. We're going to have to do a lot of things better," and who tells audiences, "I know we're here for the same reasons: Love of our country and concern for our future."
Well, I, too, feel love of our country and concern for our future, which is why I worry when Mitt Romney says that "[i]t's time for innovation and transformation in Washington" (was it ever not?) or that "America can also overcome the challenges and seize our abundant opportunities here at home." (Does any candidate think otherwise?) Or when Rudy Giuliani promises a "mission of reform and change" (as opposed, presumably, to a mission of entropy and stasis).
The truth, of course, is that political campaigns get interesting only when the candidates stop speaking in ringing generalities and infuriating phrases, which doesn't mean that they therefore become successful or even good for the country. Sen. John McCain's 2000 campaign appealed precisely because he eschewed pre-prepared gobbledygook—though that wasn't enough even to win the Republican nomination. I am also still convinced that voters originally liked George W. Bush's inarticulacy: At least he didn't sound quite as smooth, and ultimately meaningless, as everyone else. Only with time did his natural-born inability to speak English begin to produce infuriating phrases of truly unique pointlessness: "These are big achievements for this country, and the people of Bulgaria ought to be proud of the achievements that they have achieved" was a recent classic. (Click here for more "Bushisms," lovingly recorded by the editor of Slate.)
At the moment, the brightest new hope for the English language is Barack Obama, a fact I didn't fully appreciate until I inattentively read what I thought was his best-selling new book, Dreams From My Father. Expecting a dull political tract, I discovered an engaging story of his enigmatic father and his eccentric childhood, full of unexpected observations about race and identity in America and Africa, written with real elegance. "Miscegenation," he writes at one point: "The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era."
Then I discovered that I'd read the wrong book: Obama wrote Dreams From My Father 15 years ago, before becoming a political candidate of any kind. Though his recent "elect-me-president" book, The Audacity of Hope, has been praised for its prose, the jacket blurb describes it as "Senator Obama's vision of how we can move beyond our divisions" to create a "radically hopeful consensus."
I hear what they're saying, but, with all due respect, I'm putting off reading it, afraid the rot might have set in. Let's face it, guys: No good writer, however eloquent, can possibly survive a two-year presidential campaign.