A GREAT SPEECH & ITS CRITICS
12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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.
With the sole exception of Ted Koppel of Nightline, who flatly characterized it as "a great speech," I could find no other commentator who had the slightest inkling of its extraordinary quality. No one went as far as Chris Matthews would the next morning on ABC ("It was one of the worst speeches I ever heard in my life"). But Mark Shields of PBS came close: "It was too long a speech, it was not a disciplined speech, it was a compendium, it was a laundry list, it had too much in the middle." And to the ears of ABC's Michel McQueen, Dole sounded like a "preachy grandfather."
Even those who reacted more or less favorably were grudging or patronizing. "It was an effective speech, [but] I've heard more eloquent speeches," declared Jeff Greenfield of ABC. "As these things go, it was a fairly well- delivered political speech," opined Bob Schieffer of CBS. "This was a good speech. It wasn't a great speech," pronounced the pundit Kevin Phillips, also on CBS.
Nor was this stingy response confined to liberals. The conservative commentators (not just faux-conservatives like Phillips, but real ones) were also notably lacking in enthusiasm even when dispensing praise. On PBS the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot called the speech "successful, by and large." Also on PBS, William Kristol, the editor and publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, fretted that "it was not forward-looking" (though further reflection later produced an editorial in this magazine acknowledging that " Bob Dole spoke many passages of unusual beauty and power"). To Robert Novak of CNN it was "a pretty good speech," while the New York Times columnist William Satire, offering on PBS to put in a few good words for Dole's performance, could come up with nothing better than "good, solid, thematic."
To be sure, all these conservative commentators had been rough on Dole throughout the primary season, and a residual trace of their pessimism over his chances of unseating Bill Clinton, combined with their uncertainty as to whether the speech would increase or do further damage to those chances, might have blinded them to what was happening before their very eyes. And on the other side, the notorious liberal bias of the media pundits may have been at work, presenting itself in the usual fashion as objective reporting and disinterested critical judgment.
Yet whatever political animus may or may not have been driving the commentators, those two amazing facts remain. On the night of August 15 in San Diego, Bob Dole, of all people, raised our political discourse to a literary level higher than it has ever reached before in the living memory even of those of us who share with him "the gracious compensations of age." And for thus enhancing and indeed ennobling our public life with words of exceptional loveliness and images of great richness and coherence, Dole was rewarded with a philistine indifference that shames us as a nation and that tells us something more disheartening about the corruption of taste and the erosion of standards in America than all the lowest and most vulgar excrescences of pop culture put together.
Norman Podhoretz, for 35 years the editor of Commentary, is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.