Bobby Jindal, Nixon, and Symbolism over Substance

It's not what you say, it's how you say it.

The 1960 Presidential election pitted two great lions of American politics against each other - John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.  The pair could hardly have been more different both personally and politically - Nixon with his lower-class heritage and deep conservatism vs. Kennedy's patrician family and what would now be called limousine liberalism.

Even their personal appearances were totally opposite, with JFK tall, thin, handsome and sunny, compared to the more stubby, stubbly and glowering Nixon.  Both had brilliant minds and were well trained in the art of debate.

So it was with great anticipation that the nation awaited their confrontation on Sept. 26, 1960, one of the very first political debates to be nationally televised.  Previous debate transcripts were printed in newspapers or broadcast on the radio; now at long last voters could see the candidates as well as hear them.

What a difference that made!  The preternaturally media-savvy Kennedy came on like a Hollywood movie star, every hair in place, looking every inch a President.  Nixon had been fighting illness and despised makeup; he looked like something the cat dragged in.

The final scores were bizarre, but revealing and prophetic: polls taken the next day showed an astounding dichotomy.  Among those who had watched the debate on TV, Kennedy was overwhelmingly considered the victor.  Among Americans who had only listened to the candidate's words on the radio without being able to see them, the opinion was exactly reversed: Nixon had crushed JFK.

Unfortunately for Nixon, Americans had been switching to TV en masse, and JFK went on to win the election.  From that day to this, every politician at the national level has been painfully aware that it doesn't so much matter what they say, but how they say it and how they look while saying it.

Symbolism Without Substance

No modern figure has learned this lesson more thoroughly than President Obama; his Not-the-State-of-the-Union Address provides a perfect illustration.

The reaction by all the pundits was that it was a fantastic speech, a cheering speech, a "Reaganesque" speech, even "deeply conservative."  Indeed, anyone watching it on TV could not help but be reassured by the sonorous cadences and piercing intellect of our Leader.

But what did he actually say?  One of the strange aspects to Obama's oratory is that everyone agrees he is a magnificent speaker, but nobody can ever remember anything he says.

Can you recollect a clip, a line, a sentence or paragraph from any of his speeches?  No: only two words stick, Hope, and Change.  He says everything, and nothing.

It's when you examine the transcript of the speech, reading it in contemplative quiet rather than being swept away by the emotional pomp, that the astonishing contradictions jump out.  A few paragraphs in, the President said:

Not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited -- I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardship. In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years.

He then spent the rest of his speech outlining unimaginably vast growth of government, spending, entitlements, and debt, directly contradicting himself.  Free college for all!  Free health care for everyone!  Tax cuts for 95% of Americans - a neat trick, that, when only 50% of Americans pay any taxes that could be cut.

In fact, there was not one thing in his plan that has the slightest hope of turning around our economy or creating a single permanent job, as even his own Congressional Budget Office admits.  Still, it was a Great Speech and made us all feel better - well, everyone except those analytic types who invest on the stock market, which plummeted the very next moment it was open.

Bare and Barren Substance?

Then, into the aftermath of the One's bright hypnotic light pitched Bobby Jindal, new Governor of Louisiana and a conservative rising star.  Unlike Obama, Gov. Jindal actually has more than a month of executive experience.  Like Obama, the Governor is something other than white, and to all appearances, they are both brilliant men.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jindal does not seem to possess Obama's supernatural oratorical candyfloss - though it can't have helped that, upon entering the stage for the speech of his life, he was greeted with a disgusted "Oh, God!" and derisive laughter from the network news team.  No veil of impartiality here!

Style-wise, the speech went downhill from there.  As with Nixon's debate, if you disregard delivery and cut straight to the meat of the text, it offers not just a contrasting vision to Obama's dream of universalist government, it does so in a way Americans can clearly understand.

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: "Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens. We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today.

Any American who has ever had dealings with government at any level has seen exactly this sort of authoritarian idiocy.  It's utterly idiotic during a national disaster when lives are at risk, of course, but is not bureaucratic obstructionism equally idiotic at normal times?  Of course it is.  Why, then, do we put up with it?

Because we allow ourselves to be persuaded - no, to be seduced - by the rhetorical artifices and flat-out lies of those whose only goal is greater and more overweening power.  Until we learn to value the substance that makes up our lives over the alluring but meaningless symbolism of "caring", our economy will continue to struggle under the load of oppressive bureaucracy and taxes.

The genius of Reagan was not just his stalwart conservatism, but his skills of explanation exemplified in his title "The Great Communicator."  When properly communicated, conservatism sweeps all before it.

Bobby Jindal, for all his great merits, apparently does not possess this particular knack of Reagan's, at least not yet; alas, that's what the times require.  Fortunately, we have three years to address this weakness; better start now.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
"the sonorous cadences and piercing intellect of our Leader"

Sonorous cadences - yes. Piercing intellect - no.

Obama is not an intelligent man; he's a well-spoken man. What we saw the other night was a great example of this.

As the author state, he said everything and nothing - we see this in business when marketers are great at wrapping the product but have no idea what the products IS or DOES. Ever tried to explain a complicated business service to the marketing department? After their eyes gloss over, they design a marketing plan that focuses on abstract catch phrases and avoids explaining or demonstrating the BENEFIT of the product. This is why there are so many millions of dollars wasted on poorly marketed products in the marketplace. The REALLY well-marketed products stand out clearly because marketers that are intelligent at getting the core product are expensive.

Obama says he'll halve the deficit in 4 years; even his own team grimaced. This was right after he put out inflated deficit numbers that only PARTIALLY contained the whole pork package.

The advisor HE appointed to Commerce quit when Obama asked him to make 2+2=5.

He seems geniunely frustrated that the GOP, some of the media and a LOT of middle America mock his good intentions.

The more we watch him in office, the more we can clearly see that he is actually quite unintelligent. He has some academic knowledge, very little experience and ZERO wisdom.

Speaking well, even beautifully, does not mean you're smart.
February 27, 2009 11:54 AM
The problem with Jindal's speech wasn't what he said or even that he followed Obama. The speech sounded too much like a commercial for himself than the GOP response. By the time he got to the good stuff (that is, what the speech was supposed to be about), he had already lost his listeners.
March 3, 2009 7:47 PM
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