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He Said, She Said

As Abraham Lincoln said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Lincoln did not say, “As Shakespeare said, there’s nothing new under the sun.” He was quoting Shakespeare, who was quoting the Old Testament prophet Ecclesiastes. Pretty much everybody who heard Lincoln knew what their president was talking about, because pretty much everybody literate in America in the 1860s knew some Shakespeare and a lot of Bible.

Today, when a candidate or leader uses a phrase, the rules are different.

Hillary Clinton this week correctly pointed out that Barack Obama used somebody else’s words in his speeches. He shot back, when she complained that “talk is cheap,” that a good leader seeks to inspire and to motivate, and that quotes from the Constitution, and from Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Lincoln himself are all part of our national patrimony.

But Clinton’s gripe wasn’t with Lincoln and FDR and Martin Luther King. Her problem, and the reason the press corps stirred, was not only that Obama had borrowed his rhetoric from another politician (in this case Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick), but that Obama had used Patrick’s formulations word for word, even to the point of using his cadences.

Patrick and Obama are both clients of David Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant. Obama uses consultants to draft his speeches and ads, just as Clinton and John McCain do. These writers, researchers and advertising technicians use the same techniques as manufacturers of dog food to achieve the same goals: to get your attention, to gain your trust and to get you to choose their product.

Political ideas and candidates are sold to specific groups of Americans. You are not, by and large, an individual in the marketplace of ideas. To the campaigns and the candidates, you are an agglomeration of psychological characteristics that can, by and large, be surmised from your age, gender, race, marital status, income, educational level and consumption choices, mainly the type of car you drive and the kind of TV you watch.

The rhetoric of the campaigns is all crafted to move you emotionally—not to persuade you intellectually.

I dearly hope that campaign rhetoric itself has finally, truly, become a wedge issue. Because whether the words are original or rented, they are powerful, they are meaningful and they must be taken seriously. We need this debate because we need to know how effective the candidates will be should they ever come to govern. But I fear that it is becoming a one-sided battle between a comforting rhetoric of idealized parenting and a troubling, hard-edged intellectual argumentation that could leave hopeful progressives so unenthusiastic that no new national policies will ever be enacted.

I doubt, in any case, that the fight over footnotes will work as it did 20 years ago, when quotations-without-attribution turned into accusations of plagiarism and ended a 46-year-old senator’s presidential candidacy.

Back in August 1987, in the summer before the Iowa caucuses for the 1988 Democratic primary campaign, in the last year of Ronald Reagan’s second term, the press was out to winnow the field of 14 candidates even before primary voters did.

Reporters smelled blood and career advantage that summer. Here’s why: The press corps knew that former Senator Gary Hart was sexually active outside his marriage, and actively debated whether and how to raise the issue. Hart made it easy when he challenged reporters to check up on rumors of his womanizing. Paul Taylor of the Washington Post did just that: Taylor caught Hart in a lie and Hart was through. Taylor collected a scalp and his career took off.

One hot summer morning in Des Moines, as I walked past Hart’s abruptly vacated headquarters, I wondered how many other reporters would “get” themselves a candidate.

I would soon find out, because my guy was next.

Senator Joe Biden, for whom I worked as campaign press secretary, was soon asked by dozens of reporters to explain why he’d quoted a British politician without attribution. In the days before YouTube, the instrument of Biden’s political demise was a video cassette of him speaking words used by British Labor Party candidate Neil Kinnock, juxtaposed with Kinnock’s original.

Both Biden and Kinnock were clients of Bob Shrum and David Doak, Washington political consultants.

It wasn’t fair, really. Biden had often quoted Kinnock, with attribution. But the press mentality that summer was all about taking a trophy.

That seems not to be the case right now. Reporters in 2008, many of whom were around in 1988, seem content to let the voters in the primary elections and caucuses do the choosing.

Another difference is that most members of the press corps seem to be genuinely respectful of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I recall a lot of snideness on the part of Ivy-educated reporters toward non-Ivy candidates; today, there is deference.

Thus reporters know that while Axelrod writes snappy lines for his client Obama’s speeches, and while Mandy Grunwald writes tough ad copy for Clinton’s contrast ads, these two candidates are intellectually capable of crafting their own utterances.

What the rest of us need to know is this: What, beyond presenting the marketing strategies of their poll-taking, focus-grouping technicians, do their words tell us about these people?

Two statements from this campaign do the trick for me. One indicates emotional intelligence, the other a deaf lawyerly ear:

Obama: “No president should ever hesitate to use force—unilaterally if necessary—to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened.”

Clinton: “I see an America where we stand up to the oil companies and the oil-producing countries, where we do launch a clean energy revolution and finally confront our climate crisis.“

Obama’s statement is a simple paraphrase of the oath of office, in which a president-elect swears to defend and uphold the Constitution. Obama’s statement is a reassurance. It is intended to blunt any potential criticism that he does not understand the role of military power. The emotional content of his words are simply this: I am a grownup who will kill the enemy; I am a real man. I will protect you. I am therefore worthy of becoming your idealized parent-figure.

Besides stating the obvious, it is not a serious or even understandable enunciation of policy. When will he pull the trigger? Against whom? Under what conditions? Will he defend newly independent Kosovo, or just the next Ground Zero? Obama’s statement shows the will but not the way.

Clinton’s statement is classic political advocacy that at first seems emotionally laden: It is assertive and aspirational, because she “sees” as one dreams, and she addresses what pollsters have found for a generation—that Americans overwhelmingly favor energy independence, green energy and no pollution. What is missing, however, is any opportunity for an emotional connection, and that leaves us uneasy. Does her assertive tone mean that President Hillary Clinton will unilaterally command a radical change in energy policy, foreign policy, alternative-fuel development and pollution-control practices? How radical will she be? How soon after inauguration will she be radical? How will a woman whom every white male Republican nervously ridicules get a Congressional majority to implement anything radical?

Her rhetoric begs questions; it does not reassure; it does not say, I will become your idealized parent-figure, and protect you, and nurture you. It says, I will pick a fight.

The contrast between two policy-oriented sentences from two stump speeches indicates why the campaign is taking the course it has. We intellectually know that we must fight the fights Hillary boldly asserts she will fight, while Obama’s emotionally intelligent statements reassure. Obama has hired technicians who understand the emotional challenge his rhetoric must meet, and Hillary has not.

Ain’t nothing new under the sun. When FDR needed the moral authority to lead in a time of national economic calamity, he relied on soaring rhetoric to reassure, and set about with the most ambitious program of specific initiatives the country had ever seen, and would ever see, until his protégé, Lyndon Johnson, tried to do him better. The short course on LBJ is that he failed to communicate with his audience, and so lost it.

Leading means inspring: Obama is correct. Leading means detail: Clinton is correct.

Will either of them get a chance to lead if they don’t get better at connecting heart and mind?