This summer has been "a summer of death," as Chris Matthews put it recently. Over just a few months, we've lost the eternal optimist, Jack Kemp; the "Prince of Darkness," Bob Novak; the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol; and now most recently, the language maven of the right, Bill Safire. They were all thoughtful conservatives, known for making a strong, principled case for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and unlimited opportunity—and in persuasive terms that attracted people of all walks of life. The Republican Party has suffered profoundly at the loss of each of them. We all have.
As much as each was a man of ideas, a leader who cajoled, convinced, and inspired others to join his cause, they each also embodied the ways of old Washington—the days when politicians and pundits fought like cats and dogs by day, then put it all aside at night. No bitterness, no animosity, no screaming like what we see now, and ultimately, they had the ability to work with opponents when necessary.
Novak was a conservative but worked, and impressed, both sides of the aisle in writing his influential syndicated column with the late Rowland Evans. Jack Kemp, whom Peggy Noonan called the "Happy Warrior" at his death, was known for reaching outside the usual GOP circles to expand the "big tent" of the Republican Party.
These guys loved to debate—and preferred it to yelling at town hall meetings and carrying loaded guns. They wouldn't think of disrupting an address to a joint session of Congress by screaming, "You lie!" They liked to marshal their arguments and convince others with the power of their ideas. And they enjoyed the give-and-take of arguing with friends around town, trying to convince the other guy that he's got it all wrong.
Even before his Times column, Bill Safire loved being a speechwriter—someone whose job often involves helping craft arguments for the day's most important debates—for Richard Nixon. Safire and Jack Valenti, a Lyndon Johnson speechwriter, began the Judson Welliver Society, an alumni association of former presidential ghostwriters, and brought together some of the most partisan people in politics—the ones who write the words and help set the tone. Every other year, they'd gather a group of former presidential speechwriters for dinner, sometimes at Valenti's office downtown, sometimes at the Safires' home in the suburbs.
Republican and Democratic speechwriters would take turns answering one another, weaving in often hilarious, off-the-record stories about working with the greats of American politics. The food was always good and the booze flowed freely, but people came for the stories and the debate. The feeling of collegiality, the bipartisan give-and-take, the laughter at a tale well told—all kept us coming back. Those evenings always reminded me of the remark Ronald Reagan once made to Tip O'Neil: "Tip, you and I are political enemies only until 6 o'clock. It's 4 o'clock now. Can we pretend it's 6 o'clock?" Bill Safire's dinners were always held after 6 o'clock.
Safire was part of a dying breed that understood the importance of engaging people on the other side rather than merely screaming past them or preaching to one's own supporters. The fact that so many thoughtful conservatives like him have passed away this summer is reflected in the deteriorating tone of our politics now. What's slipping away is the belief that, in good writing and in civil politics, the best way to make a winning point is through the power of your arguments, not the volume of your voice.
In the world of Kristol and Kemp and Safire, words meant something. You couldn't do one thing and say another. And when you said it, you'd better do so clearly, concisely, accurately, and compellingly. One of Safire's favorite quotes speaks volumes about his approach to language and politics. It was an apocryphal comment attributed to the great orator Pericles, comparing himself to his countryman Demosthenes: "When Pericles speaks, the people say, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, 'Let us march!' "
We need more debating and less preaching. Speech giving and speechwriting aren't about crafting a pretty turn of phrase for the sake of language. They're about inspiring Americans, ennobling them and uniting them, engaging in the debate and rallying them to a cause, whether it is free speech or free markets. That's why people connected with "Yes, we can!" but haven't connected with the administration's muddy messages about healthcare reform, torture, Afghanistan, cap-and-trade, and deficit reduction. "Yes, we can!" makes you want to march; what seems lately like daily lecturing from the president doesn't.
President Obama seems to talk all the time now and isn't doing much listening, and his poll numbers reflect it. Back in the 2008 campaign, he was a pretty good debater; now he's more of a lecturer. Perhaps it's the law professor in him. When he did his recent tour of the Sunday morning talk shows to promote healthcare reform, he pointedly chose not to appear on Fox News Sun day. That's too bad. Fox was the one network he should have done—by accepting its invitation, he could have engaged his opponents on the issues, changed a few minds on the other side, and made a statement about the "us vs. them" mentality in politics. He could have followed the example of Kristol and Kemp and Safire. Instead, he preached to his own supporters.
Maybe that's why rather than marching with Obama, many people these days simply say, "How well he speaks."