It’s Policy, Not Poetry

This week the president’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, made news when he spoke about the religious references George W. Bush makes in his speeches. Mr. Gerson said that while President Bush believes, as most Christians do, that God is at work in his life, the president does not of course believe that God is behind his presidency or his policy positions.

Mr. Gerson said the president’s references to God are both carefully considered and well within the traditions of presidential rhetoric, and while some consider such references inappropriate, to rid a president’s statements of religious references would be unfortunate on aesthetic grounds—”as a writer I think this would flatten presidential rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting”—and, more important, on grounds of tradition, history and truth. “Scrubbing” public discourse of religious ideas would remove “one of the main sources of social justice in our history.” We forget at our peril that it is the pursuit of justice rooted in faith that has yielded up such great American moral and political movements as abolition, civil rights and the pro-life movement.

Mr. Gerson was eloquent, his arguments apt. But what seemed most telling was his being questioned on whether, when the president refers to belief, he is speaking in “code” to evangelicals. No, said Mr. Gerson, “they’re not code words, they’re our culture.” He said that when he put in a reference to T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in a speech, he was not sending a code; he was making a literary reference that springs from our culture. The same with religious references. They are not “a plot” or “a secret.”

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The idea that the president is speaking in religious code to his religious followers says more about the reporters who asked the question than it does about the president, or his speechwriter.

It reminded me of something. Once, 20 years ago, I was working in the White House and received a call from a respected academic. Her area of claimed expertise was presidential rhetoric. She introduced herself and told me she wanted to talk about “the manipulation of symbols” in President Reagan’s speeches. I told her I was not sure what she meant, could she tell me more.

She said, “You know, the flag—stars and stripes. He uses symbols like the flag in his speeches.”

I thought about that. I said I couldn’t think of anything the president had said about the flag, couldn’t even remember him using the word flag. Could she give me another example of what she meant. She just pressed on about the manipulation of symbols and seemed to focus on flag imagery, so I told her someone in speechwriting had given the president a Scott Fitzgerald quote recently on the meaning of being American. It was very moving. Maybe when the president speaks movingly of our country and its people she sort of sees flags in her imagination? She liked that. How do you all do that? she said. Do what? I said. Manipulate symbols that way, she said. I said, I don’t think we “do” anything. We’re just writers, we write. It’s writing.

We rang off without having achieved the mind meld she hoped for. I thought about the conversation for years. My first thought was, You can get so well educated in America that your thoughts become detached from common sense. You can get so complicated in your thinking that the obvious isn’t real to you anymore. I wondered if she didn’t honestly think that it couldn’t just be writing. She thought it was some kind of higher, dark and secret magic. She thought there were secret codes and symbols placed in speeches to communicate secret messages and elicit certain reactions.

And it is not only academics or journalists who sometimes think things like that. So do Democrats, at least if you go by the last election. In the Kerry camp there was great faith that if only they got what they called “the message” put into something like the American language, their problems would be solved. They tried many messages. They tried going to church and speaking scripture about “faith without acts”; they tried “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”; they tried “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.” The problem was that none of it seemed fully true to Mr. Kerry, it seemed imposed on Mr. Kerry by people searching for a message. And—most important—it seemed to be just words unconnected to serious policy. And Americans always vote on policy—on high taxes or low, on fighting the war on terror this way or that. Mr. Kerry’s statements didn’t seem dark or magical, they just seemed like something the campaign was trying this week.

It seemed to me that the Democrats in the last cycle really did think there is some high magic in the creation of political rhetoric, and that Republicans do some voodoo that they, being ingenuous and honest, haven’t quite gotten a handle on yet.

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As long as Democrats think that, Republicans will win. But just for the record, it’s a kind of crazy and paranoid way to look at rhetoric—secret codes and secret code receivers. Here’s a real secret. The most successful phrases are not imposed top-down from the candidate to the people; they bubble up and emerge and are used by the candidate. That’s how “It’s the economy, stupid” came about. The American people let the Clinton campaign know the biggest issue for them in 1992 was the economy. Bill Clinton received the message—it was all over his polls—and used it. Another way of saying this is that Reagan didn’t magically ride out from the West with a new political philosophy that he talked the American people into backing. A particular kind of conservatism was a rising tide in the 1970s and ‘80s and he was part of it. He believed in it; in time he became its most persuasive explainer and exhorter, and its natural leader. The meaning of Reaganism bubbled up around him and within him. Nothing had to be imposed from the top down. No symbols had to be manipulated, whatever that means.
Always in politics it comes down not to words but to actions. It’s not poetry but policy that claims support and wins. Allow me to prove this, for I think I can. I know something the Democratic Party can do right now that will improve its standing and increase its popularity. It can be done this week. Its impact will be quick and measurable.

It is this: Stop the war on religious expression in America. Have Terry McAuliffe come forward and announce that the Democratic Party knows that a small group of radicals continue to try to “scrub” such holidays as Christmas from the public square. They do this while citing the Constitution, but the Constitution does not say it is wrong or impolite to say “Merry Christmas” or illegal to have a crèche in the public square. The Constitution says we have freedom of religion, not from religion. Have Terry McAuliffe announce that from here on in the Democratic Party is on the side of those who want religion in the public square, and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall for that matter. Then he should put up a big sign that says “Merry Christmas” on the sidewalk in front of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters on South Capitol Street. The Democratic Party should put itself on the side of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and the fact of transcendent faith.

This would be taking a stand on an issue that roils a lot of people, and believe me those people don’t think conservatives are scrubbing America of Christmas, they think it’s liberals; and they don’t think it’s Republicans, they think it’s Democrats. Confound them, Terry! Come forward with a stand. It is the stand that is the salvation, not mysterious words or codes or magic messages.

Do this, Democrats. Announce you will apply pressure to antireligious zealots throughout the country. You have nothing to lose but a silly and culturally unhelpful reputation as the party that is hostile to religious expression. What you could gain is respect and gratitude. Pick up that Christmas tree, Terry, take it outside and put a star on top, stand next to it, yell Merry Christmas and ring a bell. That’s a manipulation of symbols that would actually make sense.