The rhetorical clarity of moral clarity
If you haven’t listened to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, you must. And I mean listen. I’m usually a speech reader, because I read quickly, and seldom have the time or the patience to sit down and listen to someone give a 45 minute speech.
In addition, some speakers have so many rhetorical tics and twitches that I find myself unable to focus on the speech’s content. For example, Obama, when speaking on teleprompter, has a wooden delivery; is artificially rhythmic, as his head swings back and forth from left teleprompter to right; and he tightens his sphincter at the end of most words, which gives his voice a peculiarly hectoring quality. Off teleprompter, in addition to that sphincter tightening, he’s an “uh-er,” with the sound “uh” punctuating his speech at frequent intervals.
Netanyahu’s speech, however, was a delight. His affect was utterly relaxed; his words flowed with unimpeded fluency; his timing was perfect; and his emotional pitch varied appropriately and subtly, ranging from passion, to relaxed conversation, to humor.
The speech’s content matched the delivery. It was pitch perfect: Netanyahu flowed effortlessly from one subject to another, never loosing sight of his themes: American and Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism, the tyranny Muslim Middle Eastern dictators impose on their hapless subjects, and the need for a true peace that involves Arab/Muslim acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. It was a speech that was fully deserving of the applause and ovations Congress accorded it.
The brilliance of Netanyahu’s speech wasn’t just because he’s a bright man, who’s a seasoned orator, who is (or has) a good speech writer, and who believed what he was saying. The speech also worked because moral clarity is the underpinning of all good rhetoric.
It’s no coincidence that the best writers on the Supreme Court are conservatives (Roberts and Scalia), while the worst writers are, and have been, liberals (Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter). Liberals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to pretend that disparate ideas, false logic, unworkable syllogisms, bad law, and twisted facts can come together in a smooth, constitutionally whole fabric.
The conservative justices, however, since they begin each decision with the Constitution (itself a simply written document) as their guide, are easily able to bring facts and law together under that already logical umbrella. They therefore repeatedly publish decisions that are well-written, comprehensible, and easy to sell to ordinary Americans, without translation through the Berkeley linguistic filter.
What applies to judicial opinions also holds true for political speeches. The contrast between Netanyahu’s Middle East speech and Obama’s is compelling. Obama’s speech was the usual platitudinous muddle, with rhetorical fluff about sacrifices and freedom sprinkled throughout the speech in an effort to obscure the speech’s real goal: to reduce Israel to its manifestly indefensible pre-Six Day War borders.
Obama, naively, hoped that no one would notice. When they did, he spent the next several days trying to walk his speech back, explaining to all and sundry that he meant what he said, but that they didn’t understand it; or that he didn’t mean exactly what he said; or that ill-wishers (racists all, I’m sure) were misinterpreting what he said.
This wasn’t the first time that Obama — the so-called “Great Communicator” — has found himself stuck in this kind of rhetorical quagmire. Nor should it be a surprise that this happens to him so often. As with the liberal Supreme Court justices, Obama’s speeches, which are all intended to achieve goals that most Americans find distasteful, are always a complicated amalgam of false and true facts, unworkable syllogisms, meaningless platitudes, illogical conclusions, all intended to hide the little content and time bombs buried within.
What made Obama’s latest speech stand out was that, for the first time, the world had the opportunity to contrast it with someone else’s speech on the same subject. Netanyahu didn’t have to rely upon rhetorical misdirection and other tricks to make his point. Because his speech had a starting point of moral clarity — nations that are built upon Judeo/Christian principles and individual freedom are the best — everything he said flowed without rhetorical tricks, traps, or lies.
In other words, the best way to give a good speech (and, if you’re brilliant) a great speech, is to speak the truth. That’s what Netanyahu did, and that’s what Obama was and is incapable of doing.
Cross-posted at Bookworm Room