Archive for February, 2011

Movies are all about talking. And the Oscars are all about movie people talking about movies. The winner tonight holds a special place for those of us who care about political rhetoric, history, and popular culture.
The King’s Speech is a movie about talking, and about the importance of talking well. On the most intimate, personal levels—and in the most dramatic political, and social contexts.

As Colin Firth so finely delivers his lines in the closing moments, as King George VI is about to first address his subjects with war on the horizon: “The Nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I cannot speak.”

This superb film is about a person finding his voice, finding that he can speak. It is a wonderful thing that compared to gory movies about people slicing arms off, or neurotic facebook kids suing each other, this film came out on top. While the person in question happens to have been an English monarch, his trepidations and fears are no different from any public speaking student that I, or Mr. Lionel Logue, encountered over the years.

This is also a movie about education, as much as it is about politics and royalty.

“Turn the hesitations into pauses,” Logue tells the King in one scene. “Bounce into it.” Rather than force his student into a mold, the teacher lets the student be the guide. He turns the awkwardness into something other, he re-defines the terms on which the King’s Speech was judged.

Indeed, pauses can signify confidence.

This is far more than a movie about a King finding his voice. It is an exposition of the power that language has over individuals, and vast audiences, all at once. Rhetoric depends upon audience, and “Bertie’s” impediment was due as much to the pressure of his Imperial audience as it was his horrid father and family in how they treated him and his need for “corrections.” As a teacher of speech, and rhetoric, I encountered these kinds of issues all the time. None of my pupils were the Duke of York. (What a scene that was!)

The moral of the story, so relevant today as we witness revolution worldwide and observe our own leaders’ responses to these momentous events is that when leaders speak, they do speak for nations. For peoples. The frustration with Obama, often justified, is that he does not fully comprehend this lesson.

This is also why the broader debate over violent rhetoric in our country, today, matters. We have no King, but we have leaders, and when they speak, others feel they speak for them.

There is great responsibility embodied in this, an ethical imperative that this remarkable film captures on the personal and political level.

Our own politics would be improved if we had speech coaches like Lionel Logue to help leaders on both sides—Obama, Palin, Bachmann—through the process of considering what they are saying, and why they are saying it.

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I’ve been watching with so many of you the coverage on the Middle East revolutions, on the major international television networks. Richard Engel’s work for NBC in Cairo, where he lived for years, was outstanding, but with the developments in Libya CNN has reclaimed its mantle as the leader in international news. While MSNBC reports on Lindsay Lohan, or Chris Matthews raps over and over on the union mess in Wisconsin, CNN is focused on the epoch struggle in Libya. Ben Wedeman is there. And delivering stunning reportage that will advance the international dialogue over how we in the West respond to this pivotal moment.

This is the story. As in the journo glory days of the first Iraq War, CNN owns it.  This image is from CNN cameras and Wedeman’s team, the only outfit who is there and getting this amazing story out.

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Not that I would vote for him, but I offered a few thoughts on POLITICO today on why I think Mike Huckabee is a viable 2012 candidate.  And it goes without saying that I’d certainly rather see him as the nominee over Sarah Palin or any of the other know-nothings on the tea party fringe.

Read my full article, published on POLITICO on Febraury 24, 2011.

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This just in from Speaker Boehner, responding to the Obama administration’s decision to stop defending DOMA:

“While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the President will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation,” the Speaker’s statement reads.

Stirring up controversial issues? Really? Really? Two weeks of divisive abortion rhetoric, Pence’s Planned Parenthood vendettacutting all Title X fundingnothing controversial there, Mr. Speaker?


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Bradley Smith, a well known Washington conservative intellectual and former FEC Commissioner, has been out in front of the MSM lately, appearing on Hardball and other cable programs and also contributing frequently to POLITICO.  I know from our many mutual friends in the Federalist Society that Brad is a top notch thinker and certainly not remotely in the same class as the tea party know-nothings. All the more reason I was disturbed to read his recent post on POLITICO arguing that the continuing influence of the “birthers” was not the result of his own party’s unwillingness to confront them, but, in a some contorted way, the fault of “the left” who want to “keep the issue alive.”

We do not want to “keep the issue alive.” It is a non-issue. It is a waste of everyone’s time. We on the left have dismissed it as such. It is the right that keeps it alive, by refusing to shut the conversation down as William F. Buckley shut down the John Birchers in an earlier era. What Smith is saying now is another rhetorical run for cover: Rather than use his position as a spokesperson for the responsible right to denounce the birthers and move on, he tries to blame their presence and influence on the left.  As I point out in my response, when my old boss Frank Luntz had a Fox News focus group of Iowa Republicans veer off into secret-muslim birther-land last week, he was hardly functioning as a tool of the left “keeping the issue alive.” If you watch the video, it’s telling that not only does Frank seem genuinely disturbed by what he was hearing, but he tried to impress upon these people that the nonsense they were spouting would reflect not just on them personally but on Iowans and on Republicans.

Read my full article, published on POLITICO on Febraury 19, 2011.

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My latest on POLITICO on this question, coming on the heels of the Governor’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute today. Having logged more than a few hours in the world that is Jersey politics, I think Christie’s successes speak volumes about his potential. His work on the crisis in Atlantic City, together with one of our strongest supporters in the 2008 Congressional campaign, State Sen. Jim Whelan (a schoolteacher and former mayor of A.C.) has been bold and effective. And whether or not you care for his polices, Christie’s persona is nothing if not memorable. That matters.

Read my POLITICO article here, published February 16, 2011.

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I posted today on POLITICO about the ongoing dust being kicked up by GOP Presidential hopeful Haley Barbour, whose recent utterances have reminded us of the lingering tinge of racism in the deep South and within the base of the GOP. In my post I refer to the race-related missteps of conservatives past, including Ronald Reagan, who made the unfortunate choice of launching his 1980 presidential bid with a speech on “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi — site of the brutal murders of Civil Rights activists that I and many younger folks first learned about through the film Mississippi Burning. I discussed this episode at length with Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon, who said to me that his extensive research (and first hand knowledge) led him to the conclusion that there was no intentional decision to choose Philadelphia because of its racially inflammatory history, but also that it illustrated an insensitivity on race that is hardly unique among those on the right. The impact of actions such as the Philadelphia speech are real, and they linger. The most apt phrase I’ve come across in my research on conservatism on this problem is from former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who wrote in her memoir “It’s My Party Too,” that Republicans do not know how to “think racially.” Haley Barbour is just the latest example, with his rosy reference to the White Citizens’ Councils and his Confederate license plates.

Read my POLITICO article here, published February 15, 2011.

Read my Scholarly research paper “Conservatives and the Rhetoric of Equality” posted here on a friend’s blog in 2007.

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As I wrote today in POLITICO, the stakes for Obama’s response to the revolution in Egpyt this afternoon could not have been higher. He rose to the occasion. The brief remarks were concise and well crafted, with specific echoes from two rhetorical masters who we are learning the president has a fondness for: Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr.

From King, the President borrowed the image of an “arc of history” — from the Civil Rights’ leader’s oft-quoted aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It wasn’t the first time he’s done so.

The other direct quote was from Ronald Reagan, whose influence on Obama has been the source of much media fodder in recent days. I blogged on this earlier, and as it turns out Obama chose to borrow the line I focused on, from Reagan’s 1992 speech to the GOP convention “whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.”

Obama used this exact formulation, in speaking about the protesters in Egypt: “We saw a new generation emerge — a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears, a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.”

There is an inevitable second question: How will the tea partiers react? Here is my prediction. Aside from the rhetorical parallels, Obama cited a number of historical ones. Berliners tearing down the wall. Indonesian students. Gahndi in India. And MLK speaking in Ghana soon after its independence.

No mention of the American revolution,  of 1776. Wait for it: Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, and the rest of the birther fringe will cite this as another example of his un-Americanism, his non-patriotism, his 0ther-ness.

Never mind that his point in the remarks today was that what has happened in Egypt was non-violent, in the King-Gahndi tradition. Our revolution was, unfortunately, quite violent. The British Empire did not respond to our tea party; we had to take up arms. The Egyptians’ case was different, but I can already hear the faulty analogies and bigoted criticism of the President for the way he aligned these historical moments. If I were in the room, I would have advised that 1776 be included, in some way, in his remarks this afternoon.

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Check out my latest on POLITICO about the potential for Obama to exploit the growing Tea Party-GOP divide. The discussion in the POLITICO “Arena” is quite interesting, with contributions from a range of conservatives, scholars, and commentators.

Read my POLITICO article here, published February 10, 2011.

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As I wrote today in POLITICO, the past few days have seen some long-awaited pushback from the right against Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the know-nothings on the tea party fringe. The roster of conservatives who are saying “enough” now inculdes former Senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, speaking at the annual CPAC conference.

Chris Matthews led his show with this topic last night, drawing attention to the anti-tea talk from Sen. Lindsay Graham and neo-con leader Bill Kristol. Matthews also followed the same line of argument I’ve been writing about for over a year in POLITICO: That thus far conservatism has had no successor to William F. Buckley, who cast out the loonies in the John Birch Society. Maybe Santorum, Graham, and Kristol are trying to pick up the mantle.

It’s of note that CPAC is run by David Keene, President of The American Conservative Union — one of the last bastions of the intellectual core of conservatism launched by Buckley half a century ago. Keene, who was mentored by that first generation of Buckley conservatives (notably including Frank Meyer), has a  rather public feud with Palin, and it is good to see others on the responsible right standing with him.

Read my POLITICO article here, published February 9, 2011.

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