Unctuous, but at least they need us

Politicians in a democracy must negotiate the conflict between dignity and self-promotion. It is hard to maintain one's dignity while one is anxious to please as many people as possible, and to offend as few as possible. Pity the speechwriters who must come up with words that will be safe yet original, bland yet daring, bromides that sound heartfelt.

How glad they must be when they hit on something real yet acceptable.

This dilemma may explain the trend whereby candidates speak in favor of morality, advocate family values, celebrate divine guidance and decency. Is anybody swayed by this stuff? Do the polls and focus groups indicate that a plurality of likely voters show a preference for candidates who advocate good over evil?

When politicians talk about God more frequently and more familiarly than Abraham Lincoln ever did, or good behavior more than Jesus Christ ever did, I think of my friend Fred, a wise and respected professor of literature. On the first day of his introductory course in the comedies, histories, and tragedies, Fred entered the room and before saying a word strode to the blackboard and took up a piece of chalk.

With the students watching in silence, he wrote on the board a simple admonition in capital letters: Don't praise Shakespeare.

It is presumptuous, as well as boring and somewhat insulting to your audience, to offer your celebration where it is not needed. We voters are like weary English professors reading the insincere essays submitted by students trying to show that they piously worship great literature.

Like those professors, we can be pleased by any show of insouciance, no matter how silly. When Jesse Jackson talks about "staying out of the Bushes," the phrase has no particular content, and only a moderate amount of wit. It's pretty lame, really. But in the context of sanctimonious speeches, many of us cheer up, as at a stroke of great wit. Senator Lieberman's vision of his father loading the bakery truck for an all-night shift succeeded because it had an ingredient of vision beyond the fact that it courted our sympathy. Unlike praising Shakespeare, that vision does not go without saying.

To please is not always to court. In art, your work is no good if it fails to give any pleasure - and yet, if you are eager primarily to please, you fail. Much of what we value in art has to do with its daring to defy our expectations and wishes - and to thrill or move us while doing so. Because Emily Dickinson could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for her. In Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," a merry-go-round spins violently off its moorings. I remember that quantum of poetry and that bit of film because they contain an element of the outrageous, maybe even the impenetrably strange. The works have the dignity of seeming to care about something they see, something not anticipated by us, the audience.

That level and degree of challenge may be impossible in political discourse, though perhaps it appears in Lincoln's Second Inaugural, or in the line John Kennedy uttered about what you can do for your country. In contrast, the necessity to court, to please, to avoid offending, may underlie what sometimes seems the pompous or grandiose element in political speech.

On the other hand, we must be grateful that the politicians have this problem, grateful that they do need to court us. My friend once said, on behalf of his students at a famous university, "at least they're pretentious." In our imperfect but valuable democracy, we can say of those who seek public office, "at least they're unctuous." That is, at least they need to strive to please us. At least they need to find or simulate ideas that guide their behavior. There are systems of government where evidence of such guidance is not required of rulers.

And, as Fred would happily say of his students, there is always a significant number of politicians who actually do mean what they say. And it is not impossible to figure out who they are.

Robert Pinsky recently completed three years as US poet laureate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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