POTUS Speaks Dickensian

by Joshua H. Liberatore

We at the Federal Register are all but enraptured with the rich prose that has been issuing forth, with such apparent ease and confidence, from the mouth of our new Explainer in Chief. At times in fact, editorially speaking, we feel superfluous, punctuationally feckless, as all our fears of bureaucratic redundancy, having emerged during the campaign season and reached full bloom post-election, come to fruition with every fresh utterance. In short, POTUS’s oratory seems positively inspired. Recall that initially daunting but absolutely elegant opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I will never forget reading those charming lines in my sophomore year of high school and thinking some combination of Isn’t that a run-on sentence? and Will I be able to read this whole book? But even in that superficial and inexperienced first reading, I came to realize that great prose need not always be readily diagrammable, as our erstwhile pedant would have us believe. And, in fact, on closer inspection, Dickens’s structure reveals itself to be perfectly lucid, its constituent parts flowing from breath to breath with practiced grace.

In his first Weekly Address (historically a radio broadcast, but now enhanced with a Youtube-friendly video component), POTUS evoked a most Dickensian flourish, a measured confidence in the long phrase. We were caught unawares.

No one policy or program will solve the challenges we face right now, nor will this crisis recede in a short period of time. But if we act now and act boldly, if we start rewarding hard work and responsibility once more, if we act as citizens and not partisans and begin again the work of remaking America, then I have faith that we will emerge from this trying time even stronger and more prosperous than we were before. (January 24, 2009)

Long used to the stutter-laden, fragmentary, and disjointed syntax of the former POTUS, we are confronting our own transition in process, as our hard-earned habits – the liberal deployment of semicolons, the reluctant if necessary application of em-dashes, the dreaded acquiescence to subjectless declaratives, the painful acceptance of subject-verb disagreement – nag from the corners of recent memory and give way to a more light-handed protocol. A protocol, it must be said, that bends against everything we’ve come to know about editing oral remarks from the White House. A few examples will suffice as illustrations. The economic crisis, that late-tenure albatross that rendered our previous Oval Officer nearly speechless, if not utterly discombobulated, does not cripple the speech of our current POTUS:

When Alexander Hamilton was sworn in as our first Treasury Secretary, his task was to weave together the disparate debts and economies of various States into one American system of credit and capital markets. More than two centuries later, that system is now in serious jeopardy. It has been badly weakened by an era of irresponsibility, a series of imprudent and dangerous decisions on Wall Street, and an unrelenting quest for profit with too little regard for risk, too little regulatory scrutiny, and too little accountability. The result’s been a devastating loss of trust and confidence in our economy, our financial markets, and our Government. And that era must end right now, and I believe it can. (January 26, 2009)

And more recently:

The economic crisis we face is unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime. It’s a crisis of falling confidence and rising debt, of widely distributed risk and narrowly concentrated reward, a crisis written in the fine print of subprime mortgages, on the ledger lines of once mighty financial institutions, and on the pink slips that have upended the lives of so many people across this country and cost the economy 2.6 million jobs last year alone. (February 4, 2009)

Clearly, we aren’t the only ones making this transition. The White House stenographers, who follow POTUS around and transcribe his speeches with such admirable fidelity, are not political appointees. Like other highly-skilled, technically-trained professionals (the kitchen staff, the IT folks, the grounds and maintenance crew) on the Executive payroll, stenographers get to stick around from administration to administration, making stylistic adjustments to their craft to suit the official dictates and personal proclivities of the new POTUS. They too are used to a different regime. They too are acclimatizing to new demands.

We can witness the transition faced by these faithful scribes – whose job is simply to record, not to edit – in the following example, which was full of extraneous dashes and other punctuation when it arrived in rough transcript form. Rather than adding punctuation to create sense, our task was to remove it where sense was already deliberately structured and paced. Our task, in other words, was to let POTUS be POTUS.

The businesses that are shedding jobs to stay afloat, they can’t afford inaction or delay. The workers who are returning home to tell their husbands and wives and children that they no longer have a job, and all those who live in fear that their job will be next on the cutting blocks, they need help now. They are looking to Washington for action, bold and swift. And that is why I hope to sign an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan into law in the next few weeks. (January 28, 2009)

In the first two sentences, POTUS employs a few rhetorical sleights of hand worthy of our attention. First, front-loaded relative clauses delay the action of the main verbs, building interest in the agency and weight of “businesses” and “workers”. Second, an emphatic repetition of his grammatical subject in three separate independent clauses, unified by the single pronoun “they,” organizes a complex relationship while giving the impression that each distinct stakeholder’s needs cannot be isolated from the web of responsibility that joins them in a single system. And finally, a tidy parallelism gives the entire passage its overall fluency and rhythm. Strunk and White are smiling proudly from their happy perches in linguistic Paradise.

One point I want to make is that all of us are going to have responsibilities to get this economy moving again. And when I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses, the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004, at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads, that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful. (January 29, 2009)

Again, when the raw transcript for the above remarks arrived, it was full of dashes marking off the sudden and lengthy parenthetical substructures of POTUS’s hefty sentence. Like the transcribers, we’ve grown so accustomed to using dashes for their less laudable purpose – to indicate a self-interruption, extended false start, or grammatical fragment – that we hardly recognized the syntactical firmness of this passage, relying only on a few simple commas. Our first instinct – again, merely out of habit – was to retain the dashes and add semicolons to simplify the structure and shorten the sentence for the sake of the reader, when all we needed to do was let the Dickensian prose spill forth and trust the clarity of the embedded design. How’s that for the “superlative degree of comparison” in this our humble function!

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