David M. Brown's Blog

October 12, 2011

Liberty Magazine’s Stephen Cox on Obama’s badly written utterances

Filed under: Language and grammar,Politics,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 1:59 am

Stephen Cox has written some not badly written broadsides contra cliche-stuffed bad writing. Here’s a sample of his critique of President Obama’s soporiferous “soaring rhetoric”:

Our president, so famous for words, is really, really bad with them. He’s pretentious and humorless; his vocabulary is severely restricted; his rhetorical techniques can be numbered on a horse’s fingers; he cannot tell a story; his range of serious allusion is virtually nonexistent; his sentences are mere parking lots for cheap clichés. He is dull, dull, dull. So why do people think he’s a good speaker?

The first reason is that they happen to agree with him. The second reason is that they happen to agree with him. The third reason is that they happen to agree with him.

But there are other reasons. He’s not bad looking. He’s a mechanical speaker, but he speaks with confidence, and that is a guaranteed grab for at least a third of any audience. He also speaks rather rapidly; unlike most other politicians, he doesn’t remind you of a cow systematically chewing its cud. His speeches are usually far too long, but that doesn’t matter on TV; studies show that people are almost always multi-tasking when they watch the tube. Obama has nothing to say that would interfere with checking the curtains or heating up the microwave or regretting that Junior tracked in some more of that mud. In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find.

It reminds me of that time H.L. Mencken noted the soggy speechifying of another chief executive, Harding, Obama’s equal in literary if not political oppressiveness. The Gamalielese of President Harding inspired HLM to award him “the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

After Mencken published this jab at Harding’s style, the New York Times ludicrously defended it. The President’s style “looks Presidential. It contains the long sentences and big words that are expected…. In the President’s misty language the great majority see a reflection of their own indeterminate thoughts.” To which Mencken replied: “In other words, bosh is the right medicine for boobs.”

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