Up-close and personal politics

Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. New York: Oxford University Press. 301 pp. $24.95. Is the pen mightier than the tube?

In this important study of the impact of television on presidential rhetoric, Kathleen Hall Jamieson shows how successful (and not so successful) presidents have measured up to the demand for up-close and personal communication.

``Eloquence in an Electronic Age'' is in large part a meditation on the career of Ronald Reagan. Jamieson avoids the condescending tone most academics take to ``the great communicator.'' She measures him, and his predecessors in the Oval Office, by the norms of the ``old eloquence.'' She finds that his goals - ``remembrance, restoration, and renewal'' - conform to the classical use of rhetoric as social therapy as well as political strategy. But she also finds that his means - the technology of the new eloquence (including TelePrompTers and speech writers) - have taken their toll.

TV time is precious. Meaning is meted out in ``bite''-size rations. Bites - sound and sight - are related by association, not logic. The old eloquence, on the other hand, was a tool of reason and the gift of time. ``Speakers in the golden ages of American, British, Roman, and Greek oratory routinely laid out the range of policy alternatives for examination, scrutinizing each in turn. Only after showing the flaws in the alternative options, weighing the objections to their proposals, and arguing the comparative advantages of the course they favored did they conclude.''

The old eloquence depended on ``leisure,'' defined by the ancients as mental liberty to think about the ends of man and put all pressing concerns in perspective. Jamieson describes the supportive environment of the old eloquence as including occasions for public speaking (today even the Fourth of July speech is a waning institution), healthy respect for the liberal arts (including history and languages), practice in the arts of memory, and a subordination of text (the product) to the thought that goes into it. The stress in the early pages is on the fact that eloquence can be learned.

In modern society, where ``time is money,'' there is simply no time for contemplation, at least for presidents. Enter the ghost! In a fascinating chapter, Jamieson documents the influence of ghostwriters on modern presidents. More frequently than not, it's the ghost we applaud. Sometimes a ghost will disagree with the president, but the president will dutifully read the script. Ghosts such as Robert Shrum, who served John Lindsay, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, and Edward Kennedy, can provide continuity, often making the new man sound like the old. Dependence on ghosts cuts presidents off from their own feelings and expression. ``Those who live by scripts alone,'' Jamieson says with characteristic wit, ``may find that their own ability to think, speak, and write have gone the way of our sixth toe.''

Argumentation is out of style. TV demands what Jamieson calls, in quotes, the ``effeminate'' style. Irony of ironies! The last shall be first! Originally the product of sexist stereotyping, the ``effeminate'' style triumphs in our age - with Reagan, not with Geraldine Ferraro (who, Jamieson notes, avoided it). Soft, not loud; personal, not impersonal; narrative, not statistical; cool, not hot: the ``effeminate'' style is perfect for the tube.

More than any of his predecessors (Jamieson compares him with Roosevelt, whose radio chats exploited the personal style, Truman, Nixon, and Kennedy), Reagan uses affective rhetoric to further his political goals. Jamieson shows there was a conflict between personal and public styles in the earlier presidents. There is no such split in Reagan.

In the end, the style may have compromised even Reagan. As his second term drew on, it became increasingly clear that he had delegated too much of his authority. And not only to ghostwriters! An expert script reader, Reagan lost touch with the subtexts, the arguments, that went into it, arguments being made in the basement by the likes of Lt. Col. Oliver North. Finally, on prime-time TV devoted to the arms-for-hostages deal, his ``effeminate'' style failed him. ``We did not - repeat, did not - trade weapons or anything else for hostages,'' he said, ``nor will we.'' But ``we'' did.

Jamieson closes with a Utopia. Now that she has written her book, she probably thinks everyone can see the advantages of ``mating the best of the old and the new.'' She envisions a society in which presidents have a hand in writing their own speeches and newspapers print them in full; a society in which TV news anchors or others give full critiques just after a press conference; a society that can't get enough of ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.'' ``Eloquence in an Electronic Age'' couldn't be more timely. It conveys an enormous amount of information, some of it academic, some of it anecdotal, with charm and wit and wisdom. Its central thesis - that the TV style is the effeminate style - has remarkable explanatory power. It explains why Reagan survived, as well as he did, eight years of intimacy with the American people. It explains the drift of modern American culture. But it does not make one sanguine about the future.

Utopias are not blueprints but ideals. Jamieson's Utopia suggests the importance of an institutional check on the eloquence of the tube, a permanent dialogue of writing and imaging. This debate should preoccupy the news media, politicians, and all citizens. The unity it points to is presented in an aphorism by Francis Bacon, a particular favorite of Jamieson: ``Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man and writing an exact man.''

Jamieson's Utopia, like Plato's, is finally a symbol of a balanced, harmonious existence. Coming at the end, the way it sheds light back over her argument makes her book, already a good one, a necessary one, this season and every season.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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