The Black Art of Rhetoric

Joe Knippenberg points me today to what must be Michael Gerson’s most enjoyable column ever. It concerns the justification of political rhetoric and includes the phrases “folderol” and “pixie dust.” Best of all, it’s — right!

McCain can and should make an ideological case against his opponent. Why does Obama want to fight terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not in Iraq? How would it advance the war on terrorism to grant al-Qaeda’s fondest wish — an untimely American retreat from the Middle East? Would Obama really devote his first year in office to a series of surrender summits with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea? These are serious criticisms; the argument against rhetoric is not. Obama’s political weakness is that he is too liberal, not that he is too eloquent.

A presumption of any kind of democracy is that citizens are mature enough creatures to not only survive an encounter with political rhetoric but thrive. Yes, this gets you Cleon and Gorgias, but it also gets you Diodotos and Socrates. The real trouble is posed in this case by a Pericles or Alcibiades, but, as Thucydides and Plato understood, these are the sort of fantastical creatures that democracies birth, and they’re the responsibility of democracies, too. And I am not quite prepared to call Barack Obama as excellent as Pericles or as really good-looking as Alcibiades.

Which fortunately Gerson is neither. He sticks admirably to the point that rhetoric is not among the black arts. Though Bill Clinton’s dark materials make me think twice:

“A lot of people think Hillary will win in the day time and her opponent will come in the night and take back the votes she won,” he said.

Texans — don’t let Hillary’s opponent creep all up in her house, impossible to see under cover of darkness! Don’t let him carjack her victory! Remember: Hillary is a big can of mace — I mean experience. When you go to the polls, don’t let her opponent mug you of your vote. And if anyone offers you a hit off the rhetorical crack pipe, just say no!