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Political rhetoric

01/14/04 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Commentator Jay Parini reflects on Howard Dean, George W. Bush, and the articulation of ideas.


(Parini) Nearly 40 years ago, I ran for president of my senior class in high school - my first and only venture into elective politics. I lost the election for many reasons, but one of them was because my opponent pointed out that two years before I had derided elections in the school paper, saying that class officers didn't have any power anyway, so why would anybody bother to run.

Hey, I changed my mind...it's a free country!

I go back to this only because I've been reading - once again - about Howard Dean's previous statements and flip-flops coming back to haunt him. Most recently, NBC raked through earlier interviews to find a snippet where he derides the Iowa caucus procedures. This has given his opponents in Iowa, and elsewhere, some useful ammunition.

You could write a history of political misstatements, gaffes, inadvertently honest remarks, and changes of opinion, and it would require several thick volumes. A man like Howard Dean, who shoots from the lip, is always going to court disaster in the political arena, given that he works intuitively, making a statement, then considering it, then reconsidering it.

He was, of course, trained as a doctor. It has been noted that, as a diagnostician, he tended to make a guess as a kind of hypothesis, then test that hypothesis against the facts. This is called, in some quarters, the scientific method. It may work better in science than in politics, where received opinion, polls and ideology generally determine the response of a politician to a particular question, not objective analysis.

President Bush has learned to stick to the script, and rarely ventures a candid thought. Nevertheless, he makes enough yearly gaffs to fill half a dozen volumes in the humor section of the bookstore. Mr. Bush, one might say, has become the Yogi Berra of presidents, the butt of joking reporters around the world, who continue - the president's inimitable phrase - to "misunderestimate" him.

Howard Dean will not be misunderestimated. Everyone knows he is smart. But it's going to take some time for them to get used to the scientific method in political discourse, whereby the candidate tries out a formulation in public, then reconsiders, given new information.

The great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

However true this may be, we have come to expect ideological consistency in our politicians, who often ignore reality and say whatever the party line demands. Political chatter is full of meaningless generalities, and few bother to question the reality behind the rhetoric.

Maybe it's time we began to listen more closely, to hold political feet to the fire of reason. As reporters dig into Howard Dean's earlier statements, and quote his reconsiderations, we might begin to look and listen more carefully to all political rhetoric, asking pertinent questions, and lifting the nature of the discourse up just a few notches.

This is Jay Parini, from Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer. He teaches at Middlebury College.


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