In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” a succinct tirade against the use of inflated, indirect prose in speech and writing. His argument, in short, was that politicians and writers would often hide behind large, meaningless words to obfuscate the truth. In the end, Orwell concludes that, “political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists―is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Nearly sixty years later, not much has changed. The great masses of Brooks Brothers clad politicos in the East Coast establishment today continue to employ utterly useless, oblique vernacular to hide behind views that would be indefensible if exposed for what they really were. And the American public eats it up.
Occasionally, a leader has the gall to call something for what it really is, an act that sends most politicians and pundits reeling. When Alan Greenspan recently declared that Social Security and Medicare would have to cut benefits or face insolvency―and that raising additional taxes was not the solution—the establishment had a field day attacking Mr. Greenspan’s direct critique of the failing system.
John Kerry was the first to attack Mr. Greenspan’s words, with many prominent Republicans not far behind. Ever the New England populist, Mr. Kerry did not offer a solution to the problem—in fact, he encouraged compounding it! “I will not raise the retirement age because if anything, we ought to be encouraging people to retire earlier in life, not later,” Mr. Kerry told a crowd of card carrying AARP members in Florida.
One might critique our criticism of Mr. Kerry by saying that all elected politicians must hide behind popular rhetoric, and that Mr. Greenspan, as an indirectly elected leader, has much greater flexibility to provide candid opinions. There is some degree of truth to this. But the real leaders who have seen our nation through trying times have not given two figs about public sentiment if it meant going against their honest beliefs.
Let’s step back in time twenty-five years and look at two leaders who stood for everything Mr. Kerry is against—straight talk and straight answers. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan employed straight talk to get important messages across. Nearly twenty years before President Bush part deux, act 1 succeeded in lowering the widely popular—among entrenched politicians and commentators―dividend double taxation, President Carter called for similar reforms in plain English, attempting to lower both corporate and personal taxes to spur economic growth. But we all know the story of what happened next to the plain and soft spoken President Carter.
President Reagan had a bit more success employing straight talk to accomplish his agenda. Calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” was a stroke of genius in retrospect—and accurate, if one believes in basic civil liberties for all people—but angered much of the mainstream establishment at the time as too direct and confrontational. Fortunately, Mr. Reagan did not care if the mainstream media and establishment disagreed with him, and he succeeded in pushing through many of the reforms that Mr. Carter articulated, but never was able to implement.
Whether you’re a Democratic or Republican, Green Party member or Libertarian, we can all agree that when it comes to tough issues like Social Security, the only way of getting the right answer is honest public discourse. When populists like Mr. Kerry appeal to emotion and anger over reason, offering rhetoric rather than solutions, run and take cover because when reality eventually comes raining down, the flood will not be pretty. One wonders where the Gipper and the peanut farmer are when we need them most.