Sick of lawmakers’ empty talk? Let’s cut back the supply

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, just in time for this primary season, an essay on political rhetoric.

Barton Swaim was the chief — was the speechwriter for former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Swaim believes that perhaps the best solution to improving political speech is for politicians to just say less.

BARTON SWAIM, Speechwriter: It's easy to dislike politicians, especially when we hear them speak.

They cram their speeches with wonkish hooey and hedge their statements with so many qualifiers that you're sometimes left unsure what those statements even mean.

I used to work for a politician as a speechwriter, and I confess I came up with fair amount of verbal rubbish in my day. But let's give our politicians a break. We expect them to speak far too often, about far too many subjects.

Think of the president. A half-century ago, the president spoke only rarely in public, once a week maybe. Now he speaks in public settings all week long, sometimes several times in a single day, to all sorts of gatherings on a vast range of topics.

It's not natural to orate that often. You run out of interesting things to say. And, to make it worse, your every utterance is scrutinized by reporters and political adversaries for anything offensive or controversial.

So, what are politicians supposed to do? They have to speak all the time, but without saying anything that might cause trouble. They have no choice, really, but to generate reams of semi-meaningless verbiage.

You know what it sounds like. You have heard politicians droning on about the American exceptionalism…

SEN. TED CRUZ, Republican Presidential Candidate: Exceptionalism that has made this nation a clarion voice for freedom in the world.

BARTON SWAIM: About how we can build an…

HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: Economy where hard work is rewarded.

BARTON SWAIM: … economy where hard work is rewarded,

About how we're going to give our kids and grandkids the future they deserve.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Give our kids and grandkids the future they deserve.

BARTON SWAIM: About how good things happen when America is engaged with friends and allies.

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH, Florida: Alert to danger, resolved to deal with threats before they become catastrophes.

BARTON SWAIM: You have heard these phrases, sometimes many of them strung together all at once, and concluded that you don't know what any of it meant.

Of course, empty verbosity will always be a part of democratic politics. But can we lower the supply of it, even by a little? Maybe we can by asking our politicians to speak less often and about fewer things.

The politician I worked for spoke at a dizzying array of events every week, ground-breakings, ribbon-cuttings, awards ceremonies, industry group gatherings, and many others. He was invited to speak at these events chiefly because he was the governor, not because he had some special insight to impart.

In most cases, it served no useful purpose for him to be there at all. We can't stop politicians from speaking so much. There's the First Amendment. But maybe we could stop inviting them to speak so frequently.

Consider, for example, a moratorium on elected officials addressing graduation ceremonies. My guess is that most politicians would enjoy not speaking so often. Some of them like the sound of their own voice, for sure. But many of them realize that, if you want to be listened to, the best thing to do is keep quiet until you have got something to say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we would miss them if they spoke less.

You can watch more of our essays on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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