• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Manner of Speaking: Robert Mueller

August 2019


For nigh three years, there was one man from whom every politically inquisitive American yearned to hear. Despite our desires, however, we heard from him not. He was an imagined interlocutor (or, for those more politically pious, a martyr or a savior) as we spoke and speculated amongst ourselves, but not a word came from him.


His taciturnity, sustained for so lengthy a period of time, felt like a century of silence. He was reticent beyond every natural constraint. His lack of interaction exceeded that which we usually permit and his dearth of loquacity unsettled our busy interiors to the core. Garrulous to the point of excess, this deeply troubled our ever-so talkative society. If only he were ambiguous in what he said (so long as he said something) there would be a point or two—however exiguous and obscure they might be—about which we could talk—having heard him talk. But his obscurity was held with so scrupulous a tongue that we never did get the chance to hear him speak.


And so, every sentiment of his concealed, we took it upon ourselves to fill in this torturous and unrelenting void between the spring of 2016 and this past week. It was believed by the philosophers of old that, not unlike us, nature abhors a vacuum—horror vacui, as in the Latin of the phrase’s origin it might’ve been said. Having no observable predilection to which we human beings are privy, who’s really to say that which nature finds desirous or loathsome, abhorrent or agreeable? We’ll leave that subtle contest of materialism and space between such brooding thinkers as Aristotle and Hobbes. What’s manifestly clear, however, is that our conversation, be it natural or not, absolutely disdains a vacuum. As its remedy, speculative prattle is always at the ready to fill it in. With alacrity, though often with just as much vapidity, that disquieting void is filled with speech.


Insatiate for information and empty of ear, throughout these three years, our appetite for leaks, asides, and “off-the-record” comments went sorely unfulfilled. We have to thank for this the man who was tasked with producing an eponymous, infamous, and now perhaps dubious report to which he lends his name. His report, the unimpeachable Mueller Report as it’s historically to be called, addressed the two intertwined questions of whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in an attempt to manipulate an auspicious electoral result and, if so, whether or not the man Donald Trump himself obstructed the investigations related thereto.


For the sake of brevity and succinctness, both of which are under-valued in our cacophonous age, the answers to the above questions appear to be no and maybe. The maybe, as it were, is an unequivocal ellipsis with which the Congress will be made to grapple in the forthcoming months. Although the president’s nearly disastrous indiscretions and countless peccadillos were causes of great alarm to the Mueller team, none was deemed sufficiently grievous to prompt a call for immediate prosecution.


My desire here is not pedantically to delve into the legal intricacies of presidential privileges, executive expletives, or the thresholds beyond which the charge of obstruction of justice is acknowledged or even the definition, still somewhat cloudy in my mind, by which it’s to be understood. I haven’t the legal acumen nor the layman’s inclination to explore this daunting idea.


As a slave to superficiality, however, I feel it my place to comment on how Robert Mueller presented himself in vivo—specifically in sound. As stated, I—like everyone else of a commensurate age perilously shy of three decades—hadn’t an inkling of what Mueller might sound like. Audio recordings from his previous governmental commissions (as head of the F.B.I. under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama and as the Attorney General for the first of those two) were sparsely to be found. This made the anticipation for his elocutionary entrée into my life all the more riveting. Add to this the fact that he was considered by many on the left to be the deus ex machina for whom they so long prayed.


Alas, his live appearance rendered naught all these celestial political dreams. Instead of deus, he looked to be a dotard. Instead of machina, he looked to be afflicted by the more benign parts of dementia. At the very least, we might from a distance diagnose the Vietnam War veteran and long-time public servant with amnesia and fragility of speech.


When first he appeared at a brief press conference a few weeks ago, the manner in which he spoke struck me. No commentator of whom I know was so insensitive to make it a point upon which she remarked. But I, ever attentive to the effects of good oratory and the benefits of precise and mellifluous speech, couldn’t help but take note. As such, his bearing wasn’t completely surprising. At the hoary age of seventy-three, one might expect the infirmities of anno domini to infiltrate the voice, as it frustratingly does all other things. Orotund and confident in youth, the voice—though an intermediary between body and soul—isn’t immune to the ailments by which the former is so inescapably burdened. It isn’t impervious to feebleness nor resilient to the quivering that is a consequence of the accumulation of years.


That’s what I heard when I initially experienced him speak. The second time, and presumably the last as a public employee, was this week. The apogee of Democratic anticipation, Mueller was beckoned to testified before Congress on the contents of the report to which he lent his name. And lent his name, as it was painfully made clear, was all that he did. It was obvious that those investigators and lawyers over whom he, a man of impeccable pedigree and universal renown, presided wrote his eponymous report. Absent a grasp on the subject matter before him, his voice sounded even more tentative and senescent than before. Certainly, he wasn’t the Demosthenes-type figure for whom the Democrats might’ve hoped. He didn’t stand before the senate as a latter-day Cicero exhorting republican truth to tyrannical power. He was inarticulate, unmelodious, feeble of voice, unsettled of substance, and undeserving of elocutionary exaltation.


Sadly, most prominent public figures are, and those aforementioned characteristics are attributable to most. They aren’t traits of which Mueller is in sole possession, but it was especially revealing to see them so inopportunely displayed. He maintained his silence within the verbosity of our media web for three entire years. He did so with a punctiliousness quite uncommon to the political man. He was devotedly mute, but—for the sake of his now diminished reputation—he may have persisted in being so for longer a period of time.

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