• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Preview: Presidential Debate

October 2020

The ancient standards of political discourse, over which none but the hoary classicist bothers himself, must appear to modern judgments impossibly high. They were, so many years ago, the lofty expectations to which public men affixed themselves, the strict criteria from which they, in the pursuit of high office, dared not swerve. The congested assemblies before which they spoke, the bustling citizens upon whose suffrage they relied, expected political discourse to be not only elevated, but inspired, not only penetrating, but sharp. That which was base and dull would be rejected and ignored. That which was inarticulate or vulgar would be condemnable by death.

No greater shame could befall a politician than a failure to speak clearly and to reason well. No greater loss was to be had than an inability to persuade not by actions, but by speech, and to lift oneself upon the wings of rhetoric, to which one’s own brilliance might give flight. That, after all, was the purpose for his being, without which his destiny aligned with that of an obscure and uncelebrated man. Speech, for him, was a vehicle toward the acquisition of power. Yet it was also a journey by which he was delighted and engaged.

Thus, these men ensured the unerring eloquence of their tongues and the keenness of their wits, with which they might vanquish an opponent, and secure a fickle mass. They refined their every argument and festooned their every flourish, knowing that as the latter pleased, the former would convince. They prepared themselves for every rebuttal with which they might have to contend, to which, unhesitatingly, they’d issue a profound and dazzling response. This was the work of the public man. It required of him an immense agility of mind and a formidable strength of will. It demanded that he be light on his feet and heavy in his thinking, as there’d be hostile volleys to evade, and pin-point missiles to discharge.

To the enticements of inconsistency, he offered no quarter. Every line of which he was the author was scrupulously considered and carefully expressed. All was set in proper arrangement, as though a straightened arrow, to which the clouded air, filled with so many windy words, would always give way. There would neither be, in the course of his speeches, things adventitious nor unwanted. Everything was natural, political, deliberate, and clear. Digressions were very seldom to be heard, as they’d not be tolerated by an audience impatient of fluff. Non sequiturs were impermissible, for the very reason that they were illogical, and a history of great speakers avoided them like the plague.

Such standards produced a class of orators to whom the millennia haven’t yet produced an equal. Scan the recent hours of our national life, and you’ll doubtless agree. Peruse the fading decades upon which a twilight of good speaking has descended, and you’re vision of this truth will be clear. So impatient in our desperate search to find a man to whom the title, orator might apply, we feel the compulsion always to return to the past; we know, after all, that we won’t find him on these ubiquitous television screens to which we’ve become so inseparably glued. There, back then, we encounter the likes of Pericles, Demosthenes, Caesar, and Cicero, of whose force of eloquence and weightiness of soul, our own age of talking hasn’t even offered a cheap imitation.

We, unfortunately, live in an age of ineloquence. We reside not amongst harmonious Greeks, but inarticulate Americans. We listen not to rigorous Romans, but to half-educated English rubes. Ours is an era from which sublimity of thought, nuance of insight, euphony of language, dexterity of words, and rigidity of reason have all been barred—so far as it concerns our political discourse, and those by whom it’s communicated.

Tonight, the two men doing that communicating will be Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Combined, their ages exceed one hundred and fifty years (a number to which their combined IQs wouldn’t dare aspire). They’ll meet each other, for the first time under such tense and meaningful circumstances, on a stage on which they’ll proceed to debate. The moderator will be Chris Wallace, from whom the epithet of “impartial” has lately been rescinded. At best, his former claim to that title has been brought into question; at worst, he’s voluntarily discharged it. The world, then and there, under his guidance and moderation, will recognize just how far from eloquence our political talk has fallen.

In the words of the inimitable Victor Davis Hanson, while the incumbent is ungrammatical, the former Vice President and Senator is agrammatical. The one suffers from a penury of diction, the other from its complete absence. The former at least approximates the English language, while the latter’s utterances, when intelligible, must be translated from an alien to a more familiar tongue.

Trump has an anfractuous, meandering style of speaking, to whose oratorical north star, it’s often difficult to orient oneself. More than often, one will be lost in a sea of aborted thoughts, fragmentary feelings, run-on sentences, and every species of superlative known to man. It’s not a hospitable, much less a navigable world through which the unprepared traveler might venture, but he does so with some hope of the discovery of firm land.

Usually, there’s a point around which the current president is beating, on which he can’t compel himself to focus, at which the listener can only guess. It’s not completely terra incognita, and it takes a bit of inference, and a lot of patience to find the solidity of footing on which any understanding of his meaning can rest. Thus, he’s a speaker to whom you must listen carefully and charitably, if you’re to understand his intent. It’s there to be found, but only beneath a pile of vulgarity and confusion.

Biden, in his brighter moments of lucidity, is very close to being incomprehensible. It’s a line he likes to toe and, sadly, a precipice over which he invariably trips. Despite the vain contentions of his close advocates and supporters, the former Vice President is obviously in state of mental disrepair. Those who contest the informality of my diagnosis might join him in being so. The mental infirmity, if not the pathologic senility that’s become increasingly difficult to conceal, is evident to all who’ve spent time with people of this type. It’s an unhappy station to which age, so callous of old accolades and previous success, tends to dispose most men. Certainly, it’s not one to be encumbered by the exigencies of a brutal political fight.

It’s Biden’s tendency to slip into a language with which only those in the grips of dementia are fluent. In a posture of drooling vapidity, they nod along in blind agreement and quiet consent. As for the rest of us, we’re left scratching our heads at the words coming out of his mouth. His thoughts are half-baked, if the oven is even turned on at all, and what’s produced is little better than the bland pabulum we’re being fed.

So, with that said, enjoy the debate tonight. Don’t despair in this age of ineloquence. It soon shall pass.

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