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A GREAT SPEECH & ITS CRITICS

12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 15, 1996, two amazing events occurred. The first was the speech Bob Dole delivered at the Republican National Convention in San Diego accepting his party's nomination for president of the United States.


What was amazing about that speech was that it turned out to be the most distinguished political oration anyone had delivered in America in a very long time. And what made it even more astonishing was that language of such beauty and such eloquence should have issued from the mouth of this taciturn and legendarily inarticulate man.


Of course, as all the world knows, it was the novelist Mark Helprin who put most of that language into Bob Dole's mouth. But that is the way it goes with politicians, and not politicians alone, in our time. Ghosts write their speeches and their articles and their books, and in an epistemological leap we all agree to pretend that the politicians themselves are the true authors. Which in some sense I suppose they are, having (in most cases at least, and certainly in Dole's) dictated the substance and perhaps even the spirit of the text, having also done a bit of editing, and then finally having taken responsibility for the whole by "signing off" on it.


Here, then, are some of the phrases and sentences Bob Dole was willing to accept as his own on August 15. In introducing himself to the American people, by whose "generous leave," as he so wonderfully put it, "I stand here tonight," he proceeded to ring many changes on the image of a man standing:


And who am I that stands before you tonight? I was born in Russell, Kansas - - a small town in the middle of the prairie. . . . It is a place where no one grows up without an intimate knowledge of distance. And the first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small. And if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong. . . . I come from good people . . . and there's no moment when my memory of them and my love for them does not overshadow anything I do. Even this; even here. And there is no height to which I have risen that is high enough to allow me to forget them, to allow me to forget where I came from, and where I stand and how I stand, with my feet on the ground, just a man at the mercy of God.


Not every passage that followed this sublime beginning could hope to match it, but luminous phrases continued leaping out and lighting up the rhetorical landscape. A number of them used the idea of grace (not often sounded in contemporary political discourse) as a leitmotif: "the gracious compensations of age"; "a grace in leadership embodying both caution and daring at the same time"; "a lesson in grace and awe." And even when he turned to the relatively pedestrian job of listing the policies he supported and opposed -- a passage that admittedly had its longueurs -- his own grace of style did not desert him and often came strikingly into play.


Sometimes it did so through a fresh or unexpected phrase, as when in addressing the teachers' unions, he warned: "I plan to enrich your vocabulary with those words you fear, school choice and competition and opportunity scholarships." Sometimes the same grace showed itself in an unusually elegant approach to the issues. For example, instead of treating immigration and affirmative action as distinct questions, Dole brought them together by looking up -- at what he charmingly described as "a very steep angle" -- to Washington and Lincoln. Guided by their "concern for the sometimes delicate unity of the people," he conditioned his support for (legal) immigration upon a demand for assimilation that was simultaneously firm and understated. This he then linked with his opposition to the racial and ethnic separatism fostered by affirmative action, without forgetting to add the more standard constitutional argument.


When was language such as Dole used on this occasion last encountered in a political speech in America? Listening to it, I marveled, and then, channel- surfing after it was over, I came upon the second amazing occurrence of that night.