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the Complete Review
the complete review - linguistics / politics

Talking Politics

Michael Silverstein

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To purchase Talking Politics

Title: Talking Politics
Author: Michael Silverstein
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 132 pages
Availability: Talking Politics - US
Talking Politics - UK
Talking Politics - Canada
  • The Substance of Style from Abe to 'W'

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting (and disturbing) small study of the triumph of style (and not even a very stylish one) over substance

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Michael Silverstein focusses on two examples in his small polemic, and a starker contrast is hard to imagine: Abraham Lincoln's so-called Gettysburg Address versus what comes out of the mouth of the current American president, George jr. Bush.
       Talking Politics is part linguistic analysis: Silverstein parses Lincoln's short speech, and carefully examines the pieces, trying to show where its rhetorical effectiveness (as well as substantive power) lie. Silverstein sees it as a great example of "communicating the message", i.e. not only conveying specific information but conveying much more. Indeed, our image of Lincoln is in large part defined by that speech (and for good reason, Silverstein suggests -- it's a masterpiece of communicating the message).
       The contrast to the junior Bush is striking. Silverstein considers other American leaders in between as well, noting that several were not particularly articulate (Eisenhower, in particular), and that others (LBJ and Nixon) expressed themselves (at least in private) very ... forcefully (i.e. they cursed a lot). But the junior Bush is in a class all his own.
       Silverstein offers a large number of examples of the president's mangling of grammar, incorrect use of words, and similar linguistic outrages. He notes that the junior Bush is now kept on a short leash by his minders: like a small child who doesn't know better, he has to be carefully monitored so he doesn't do what he is not supposed to (which includes speaking without having been told exactly what to say):

the Dubya White House has gone back to the pre-Eisenhower practice of allowing the pres to quote only "official" versions of all of the President's remarks, i.e. ones from which all the fun stuff has been deleted. They have confined videotaping and photographing of live appearances exclusively to trustworthy audiences and venues, from which, save for the occasional reportorial leak (...), only the carefully rehearsed sound-bite line or two have emerged.
       Nevertheless, the junior Bush's mangling of the English language and frequent inability to express thoughts coherently is well-known -- and widely tolerated. In part, Silverstein shows the president's displays of ignorance are part of the message: they show him to be just a regular guy -- in contrast to, for example, his opponent in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore (someone who actually has a grasp of the facts, and is capable of discussing them). Silverstein reminds readers of the debates between the candidates in 2000, where the junior Bush avoided answering any questions and hammered home only his message (coming across as, Silverstein suggests: "Hey, I'm not perfect; but I'm really trying !"), and Gore's attempts to:
expose Dubya's evasions and contradictions, his lack of control of detail, or even comprehension of the previous question -- all to no avail. The "message" was that Gore had joined the so-called "liberal press" -- you know, the ones who ask all those trick questions that try to pry positions on issues out of a candidate (.....) So by sharp contrast to Bush, all fidgeting and little tics and nervous re-posturing aside, Gore conveyed a counterproductive "message" of being one of those folks who don't understand "message," but are focused on issues, issues, issues.
       Silverstein collects and analyses a wide sampling of the junior Bush's (mis-)statements, categorizing them and considering what one might conclude from them. Amusing (and familiar) though many of them are, it's also a terribly depressing exercise. The junior Bush is a man of practically no accomplishment -- what successes he has had were made possible only by an extremely generous support net -- and his years as president have proven if not (yet) ruinous certainly debilitating for the nation. But enough folks like -- or are fooled by -- his message, preferring this style to any sort of substance. The "message" -- reinforced by the carefully scripted public speeches on grand occasions, where the president reads sentences he himself would be incapable of forming and addresses issues that are clearly intellectually beyond him -- is enough to sway an incredibly tolerant public. The consequences are, of course, devastating (though in a piece of exaggerated rhetorical understatement Silverstein suggests only: "Dubya's spoken identity ought, perhaps, to give us pause").
       Other recent American presidents have been more style than substance: Reagan, certainly, and Clinton (less successfully) to some extent as well. But Reagan's and Clinton's styles were transparent; the public knew what it was getting. The junior Bush's style is all fog. Even those parts of his "message" that seem obvious turn out to be vacuous: he appears to be a man who feels strongly about good and evil, but scratch beneath the surface and there's nothing there: he's barely able to give any sense of what he even means by these concepts (see, for example, Peter Singer's The President of Good and Evil).
       There have been many books about the junior Bush's inability to speak properly, from collections of his sayings to close and academic analyses. Silverstein's is a small, accessible look at one aspect of how this man presents himself, usefully contrasted with the example of Lincoln.
       A good, quick -- and depressing -- read, with some interesting linguistic exposition

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Talking Politics: The Gettysburg Address: Michael Silverstein: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Silverstein teaches at the University of Chicago.

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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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