No flights of fancy language Congress: If you're waiting to hear soaring oratory today, we have two brief words for you: Forget it.

October 08, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Three qualities will almost certainly characterize today's deliberations in the House of Representatives on whether or not to take another step toward the impeachment of President Clinton: The debate will be nasty, brutish and short.

Brilliance will elude the House chamber, which has, on rare occasions, served as the scenery for the making of foolish history. The debate will not dazzle. No stunning speeches will be heard, no flights of golden oratory launched into the national posterity.

Such are the expectations of some, if not all, people professionally interested in today's outcome.

Those consulted expect a flow of recriminations previously heard but which have lost all power to scald. Probably the best the country can hope for will be another of those acerbic comments by Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, which have served to let off some of the gas and defuse some of the bombast that has been exploding all over Capitol Hill since Kenneth Starr delivered his referral into the wet palms of the Judiciary Committee's majority.

The debate will be short because the Republicans, who call the shots, have alloted only one hour of talk before the vote on the impeachment inquiry.

It will be nasty and brutish because the issue that has provoked the whole shemozzle is not -- according to the opinions of a majority of Americans, as revealed repeatedly in national polls -- challenging and significant to the nation, but rather small and personal and not something for which they want their president put out of his office.

It is well-known -- at least within college faculties -- that political ferocity grows in direct proportion to the shrinkage of the issue that provokes it.

And that, too -- the size of the issue, and the lack of consensus surrounding it -- virtually assures the mediocrity of the rhetoric that will flow today out of the Capitol like a molten soporific and into the ears of the nation.

But all is not lost. Grand oratory lives. Or does it still?

It depends on whom you talk to.

If you think that this country -- which has produced orators of the stature of Martin Luther King Jr., William Jennings Bryan and Abraham Lincoln -- has seen an end to all that verbal bravura, you should think again, says Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communications at Towson University. It's just that conditions are not right for it.

"Oratory depends on the issue that calls it into being," he says.

Times have changed, and what we lack are "consensual" issues, something unifying, an idea everybody, or nearly everybody, can get behind.

"One reason people think we have such a history of great oratory that has been lost is that for most of their lives we have had two dominant issues before us: communism and civil rights," Vatz says.

These two issues galvanized the great majority against an agreed enemy: communists and bigots. Before these demons came along, we had the fascists.

And in response to each of these specific threats, we have had historic stemwinders: FDR's "Day of Infamy" address, King's "I Have a Dream" speech and John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you ..." inaugural.

And even long before that there was the Gettysburg Address, and the context of the Civil War from which it flowed.

"To be fair," Vatz continued, "the speeches we look upon as great would be nothing without the tremendous sense of right and wrong they recalled. That's the reason there will be no great oratory that will come from this scandal. Because there are equal arguments on both side as to why we must have impeachment proceedings or why we should not."

Historian James MacGregor Burns, head of the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland and winner of the National Book Award for this biographies of FDR, believes that oratory is a lost skill among America's political class.

He attributes this to the effects of television and the "need for short bites," and, to a lesser extent, the fact that colleges and universities don't require students to take instruction in rhetoric anymore.

But he's not with Vatz on the deeper causes. Oratory has gone out of use as a skill, he says, because it has been suffocated by too much bipartisanism, too much consensus-seeking, namby-pamby plea bargaining.

"Consensus," he says, "that's the death of democracy. It is also ++ the death of oratory. The great oratory of the past was always connected with party and philosophical issues. If you make a deal you don't stand up. It is only when you take strong party stands that oratory flourishes."

He allows, however, that "real issues," policy issues -- "when people have strong opinions" -- those are the circumstances that are required to stimulate really good speeches.

And the current issue before the House?

After a long silence, Burns said, "That will be decided in the election."

When Russell Baker, the humor columnist for the New York Times and former Sun London bureau chief, was first sent to cover Congress, he met with a disappointment. After the debates he covered in the House of Commons, he observed, most talk in the U.S. Senate "seemed commonplace, inaudible and inconsequential," a remark that infuriated then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Speechmaking to Johnson, Baker reported in his memoir, "didn't count for anything."

Other political leaders of greater historic gravity than Johnson appreciated the power of the spoken word to sway people, and nations. Winston Churchill was one of them. So was his principal antagonist, Adolf Hitler, who said:

"All epoch-making revolutionary events have been produced not the written but by the spoken word."

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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