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Shakespeare has Juliet say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and that may be true. But Juliet was in love and trying to justify her love for a boy who had the wrong last name. In politics we call roses by lots of other names, and for good reason. Politicians are sending signals to supporters and voters and sometimes need to make points without making points, as it were. Well, here are some notable examples. One of the most unfortunate choices of words in modern times may have been George W. Bush’s saying he would wage a “crusade” after 9/11. People who knew their history wondered whether he had any idea what the word meant, given the original crusades. But Bush didn’t invent using this metaphor and hyperbole. In fact, many earlier presidents had used the word “crusade,” only not at such an unfortunate time in history. Warren Harding was a very bad speaker and deserves his own book. His speeches were marshmallows, pumped full of hot air, loose of their tethers in the wind, but once or twice they looked nice in the breeze or lighted somewhere. In one of his short bursts of clarity in the 1920 campaign, he said American needed “not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” His text survives, and there the infamous word appears correctly as “normality.” Harding apparently misspoke and said “normalty,” but the press reported he’d said “normalcy” and a word was born. These coded phrases were a backlash against World War I and the efforts of Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, to have America play a more active role in the world through the League of Nations. FDR gave a gift to Democrats that lasted into the Reagan years. He mocked the hope of the typical American “conservative” that “prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man.” This, of course, was the “trickle-down” theory
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that Reagan’s opponents later stigmatized as underpinning his supplyside economics. By 1936, FDR spoke of “Economic royalists,” tarring some business people with the brush of the British monarchy that America had fought to escape. In the 1940 campaign, FDR still had his oratorical magic, painting Republicans as isolationist enemies of the common person. One of his major weapons was the circus metaphor. “Republican orators swing through the air ... turn new somersaults ... seized their trapeze with the greatest of ease, and reversed themselves in mid-air” Bill Clinton killed several birds with one stone with a quote from the Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He brought God into his campaign and used the Pledge as proof of his patriotism, because rumors had surfaced that he had been a draft-dodger. He also wanted to distance himself from his predecessor, Michael Dukakis. As governor of Massachusetts he’d vetoed a bill requiring teachers to use the Pledge in their classes—an issue that George H.W. Bush had successfully used against Dukakis in the 1988 campaign. Senator Obama’s code has a long lineage and is tricky. Start with the cadence. There are distant echoes of the rhythms of a Baptist preacher. Inspirational Black American speakers boast a great pedigree that includes Dr. Martin Luther King. If you listen closely to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can hear members of the audience joining him in the call/response format used in a traditional Baptist sermon. Two years before Dr. King’s speech in Washington, Sam Cooke recorded one of the definitive blues songs, “Bring it on Home.” Lou Rawls sings the response lines. At the time some considered the song controversial in using what was regarded as a church convention. In his most famous speech, King not only applied his church-based oratorical skills but also referenced religious teaching and the American political litany—the constitution, the Declaration of Independence, patriotic songs and other such references. Dr. King ran all the bases and hit several home runs. The second sentence of his speech begins by recalling the emancipation and Lincoln’s construction in the Gettysburg Address: “Five-score years ago...” He quotes several long, complex and metaphorical passages from the Bible. He uses both a line from a Negro spiritual, “free at last,” and a long quote from the patriotic song “America” – which, ironically, is sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen”:
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My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing, Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims’ pride; From every mountainside, Let freedom ring! Dr. King then repeated the quote “Let freedom ring” ten times—just as many times as he repeated “I have a dream.” Repetition is an important rhetorical technique, and this speech is the gold standard. American political rhetoric must be rooted in faith, and this speech and speaker are the gold standard in that category too. But what may have been even more important than repetition is Dr. King’s use of the secular song “America” (My country, ’tis of thee), as both a beacon and a shield. Coupled with the references to the constitution, the message is that if listeners believe in their cherished secular documents and songs, they must also believe in the message of equality in the speech. That’s the compelling beacon—come to where these words can be implemented. What provides the shield is that anyone who might have criticized Dr. King’s message risked being accused of de facto criticism of America’s constitution, its Declaration of Independence and a patriotic song that practically serves as a second national anthem. Dr. King was not making a political campaign speech but he was on a campaign. Obama’s most famous campaign speech on race and his controversial pastor, echoes the preamble to the US constitution for a similar purpose. Speaking of “a union ... perfected over time” is a twist to the preamble, which states, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...” Later he raises the issue of race, “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” Much later he refers to “the path of a more perfect union.” After conceding that “This union may never be perfect,” he then ends his speech with a final reference to how “our union grows stronger” and “where the perfection begins.” A net result is that if you disagree with Obama, you are disagreeing with the constitution. George McGovern did much the same in his time. In his 1972 call for America to “come home” and deal with domestic issues, he suggested forming “a more perfect union here at home.” In 1960, John Kennedy used the presidential oath of office as a shield to protect him from criticism on the religion issue. He ended one speech by quoting from the oath of office: “I solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States,
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and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. So help me God.” JFK was tacitly saying that if they were worried about his loyalty to his Roman Catholic Church and God, they should remember how his oath of office—a sworn statement to God—bound him to fulfill his constitutional duties and the requirements of his office. Finally, it’s sometimes ironic how a word can change its connotation. Barry Goldwater spoke glowingly about “the brisk pace of diversity ... a cherished diversity of ways, diversity of thoughts”—perhaps as a code word for states’ rights, which in turn may have been another code word for racial inequality. Today the word is used to celebrate racial and other forms of different but equal members of society. So, buried in successful political speeches, sometimes not too far below the surface, there are often treasures that serve as both beacons for voters and shields against attack.
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