One of the most reliable standards in international comedy has long been the outstanding ineloquence of American politicians. In this place I recently summoned up the golden memory of Dan Quayle. But if you look at the record, there was similar — far less justified — tittering at Ronald Reagan. Closer to our own time comedians and others had much fun with George W. Bush, Donald Trump and indeed almost everybody who has ever risen to the top of the Republican Party.
Something striking about this is that rarely is there any similar tittering over the ineloquence of American politicians of the left. Fans of the Democratic Party will say that this is because their party attracts a more cerebral type of candidate, and perhaps voter. Yet this ignores simple facts. For although the Democrats certainly can produce the occasional silver-tongued son of a gun (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), they are at least as capable of producing people who approach the English language as though it were an obstacle course.
The Democrats always have an explanation for this. We are often reminded that as a young man Joe Biden had to overcome a stammer. Still, he remains one of the most yawningly unfollowable politicians I have heard. When he sticks to the teleprompter he reads it with an air of suspicion, as if he knows this thing has tripped him up before and he’s darned if he’s going to let it do it again. Yet it is when Joe goes off-script that all surrounding eyes widen with fear.
Last year, announcing the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden was flanked by the judge and Vice President Kamala Harris. “America’s a nation that can be defined in a single word,” Biden began promisingly, while his vice president stared ahead with a steely air, as though she knew what was now likely to happen. Whether or not America can be summed up in a single word, what Biden pronounced was not a word in the English language. Or indeed in any known language. The word in question came out as: “I-was-a-futum-futm-excuse-me.” He went on to talk about the Himalayas, a look of barely concealed amusement crossing Harris’s face.
On reflection, perhaps she was simply taking notes from the master, because her own speeches have become celebrated in their own way, principally for her attempts to imitate the speaking style of Obama with none of the content or skill. Harris picks up big subjects — the nature of time, for example — and then proceeds to say something simultaneously excitable, unfollowable and banal. Last year in a speech she said: “The significance of the passage of time, right? The significance of the passage of time. So when you think about it, there is great significance to the passage of time… there is such great significance to the passage of time.” Everyone listening agreed. Time was indeed passing — but very slowly.
Still, if anything, these are the more capable public speakers at the top of the party. And here there is something actually sad that needs pointing out. Because what is beneath them in the pecking order really does start to feel like elder abuse.
Senator Dianne Feinstein has been a representative for California since 1992 and a distinguished member of the Senate. Now ninety, after a long absence she was recently wheelchaired into the Senate looking uncomfortably close to death. It has been made clear to the media that they are not to attempt to speak to her. A fight is under way for her seat, but the Democrats are masters of holding on to all power long after they should. This is one reason why the top of the party resembles such a gerontocracy.
There is something slightly sickening about the insistence that its representatives put the party ahead of their own health or reputations. It is said that Dr. Jill Biden is the only person able to persuade her husband not to run for another term next year. Biden will be eighty-six when he finishes a second term. At a time when his running mate’s net approval ratings hit a low of minus seventeen, you would have thought that letting in a new wave of talent would be mere survival instinct.
Yet the party marches to a different drum. If you doubt this, then consider what the Democrats have done to Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. The party’s candidate in last year’s senatorial election suffered a massive stroke just before his victory in the primaries. His wife had to deliver his victory speech for him. But the party pushed him into the senatorial election anyway, unwilling to change candidates at such a late stage. And so Fetterman has also been effectively wheeled into the Senate to vote as he is told. When he does speak, it is clear that the poor man has serious cognitive problems.
This week he startled even President Biden. Reopening the I-95 highway (which had been closed following a terrible accident), Fetterman made a brief appearance. With the president standing beside him, he recalled a time before when they had addressed a collapsed bridge. With Biden nodding sagely, Fetterman said “And now I’m standing next to the president again,” signaling suddenly, startledly, at the man who’d appeared beside him. He proceeded to call the president “a collapsed bridge” before going on to say that the present administration is committed to working with a “delegitigation” to work on “infructure and on top of that the dual kind of a law of the infration bill.” This is not a well man and only a party in great fear would keep putting before the nation representatives who are so incapable of addressing it.
The Republican Party have their own problems, but two things they do not lack are upcoming talent and people who can talk. The Democrats by contrast seem to be outdoing each other in incapacity. And then the question becomes: why? And for what end?