“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
So begins Teddy Roosevelt’s “It Takes More Than That to Kill a Bull Moose” speech, which he delivered for 90 minutes with a bullet in his chest. Moments before he had been the victim of an assassination attempt but, true to his image, he decided to make his speech anyways. Though he veered from his prepared remarks, Roosevelt made an impassioned speech asking the voters of Milwaukee to support him in his bid as the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate. A third-party candidate in a multiple candidate race, former President Roosevelt utilized the wound spilling blood into his shirt to attack newspapers supporting his opposition; sitting President William Howard Taft of the Republican Party, future President Woodrow Wilson of the Democratic Party, and future political prisoner Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party. Even in 1912, media bias was an issue, media objectivity a farce.
Roosevelt was not the last great American orator, but the end of the 20th Century seems to have finished most of them off. If President Obama is the greatest speaker of his generation, then it reflects poorly on his apparently inarticulate generation. The era of the sound-bite should’ve sharpened oration, not dulled it. Every sentence should be a sound-bite. Instead, we nestle them away, like jewelry hidden in a sock drawer. Modern speeches have all the pep of socks in a drawer, you know exactly what’s coming. There is only one way the State of the Union ends: some slight variation on “the state of the Union is strong,” and then “thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
Perhaps much of this is the media’s fault. With its eagerness to jump on any misstep by anyone, the result has been that candidates shy away from powerful imagery or anything that could be taken out of context. Reliably tested and polled talking points dominate. No one wants to be Mitt Romney, quoted as saying “I like being able to fire people.” The full sentence was “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.’” This was all in the context of how the tax structure makes it hard for individuals to purchase health insurance. But those seven words, “I like being able to fire people,” fit into a media narrative of Mr. Romney and the nuance got lost. That’s what happens, you get reduced.
Roosevelt also stands apart for being interesting. Patrician, imperialist, patriarchal reformer; all these things are true about him. But Roosevelt fought against the excesses of the Gilded Age and for conservation of land. It’s largely thanks to his Presidency that many of our open spaces exist at all. Plenty of Roosevelt’s successors were interesting, but after about 1968 our presidential candidates have largely lost any real interesting backstory or compelling narrative, instead descending more into the seedy. What can be said of President Obama’s or Mr. Romney’s careers? There is little drama there. The tension of President Obama was his historic first, that an African-American President would finally rule over the country, nearly 150 years from the end of the Civil War and 50 years from the end of Jim Crow’s pseudo-slavery. No one today, however, looms larger than life.
Perhaps the largest figure produced in Rhode Island in recent years is Buddy Cianci. Despite the obvious corruption which seems to have quashed his political career, Cianci without a doubt changed Providence for the better. It would have been impossible for him to rule for over 21 years (with a seven year interruption) otherwise. In all honesty, I miss the Renaissance City image he cultivated; it conjured up da Vinci and Michelangelo. “The Creative Capital”, with its $200,000 “P” seems a pale imitation. I was too young to ever hear Mr. Cianci speak, but he seems energetic and emphatic if not overly eloquent in the sole clip I can find of him at the 1980 Republican National Convention. It won’t endear him any to anyone but you get a quick sense of what his speaking ability was like. I do remember him briefly taking the stage at my sister’s high school graduation to hand out jars of his marina sauce. Mr. Cianci has always struck me as much like Huey Long, although without the populist message.
In contrast, Rhode Island has always dealt with patrician politicians of an odder mold, along with its share of awkward policy wonks. Though I view the latter as necessary, the former generally entrench elite interests except for the few that push to assist the poor. Claiborne Pell was one of those exceptions. The recent State of the City speech by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras hasn’t made Mr. Taveras appear much more than a man in a difficult position to me. Hamstrung by the budgetary demands of austerity, Mr. Taveras may simply be unable to be the robust booster the city needs, and it may not be in his style to appear a fighter. He has an opening with Brown University, but it’s unclear whether he’ll take it.
Finally, Lincoln Chafee to me seems someone with a chance to be interesting who just hasn’t managed to find his voice. A former farrier, a defier of the Bush Administration while a Republican (voting against the Iraq War when so many “progressive” politicians got that call wrong), the state’s first independent Governor… There is much to Chafee that just doesn’t come through. This may well handicap him if he decides to pursue reelection in the 2014, though that is too far away. But it certainly will handicap him over the next three years of his term. Without charisma, Chafee can be easily misconstrued and portrayed negatively by his opponents.
We decry the reduction of media to entertainment, that it cheapens politics. But we can be overzealous in our application of this as well. PolitiFact works fine when it checks actual facts; too often it has strayed into opinionated statements about rhetoric. Frankly, I’d rather have politics entertaining than dull. People sat and listened to Roosevelt speak for 90 minutes while he bled from the chest (some tried to stop him and get him to seek medical attention). Do you think they were all there because they really loved Roosevelt, or do you think the fact that there weren’t televisions, electronics, movies, or even radio had something to do with it?
Politicians compete for attention with every other possible distraction in the world. This is the society we live in. Why should I listen to a politician when I’ve got work to do or can play Angry Birds on my smartphone? It’s pretty simple. Engage people and win.