When I troll the newspapers on the internet every morning I read for style as much as I do substance, and I am on constant alert for trends in wordsmithing. The usual end-of-year round-up stories that editors use to plug the gaps in the slow news week that separates Christmas from New Year’s predictably yields a bumper crop of new material. This morning was no exception, and the penny dropped for me as I read Maureen Dowd’s deliciously vituperative bit of snide in the New York Times.
It wasn’t Dowd’s now-familiar nattering on about having been sold a bill of goods by Obama that caught my attention so much as it was her use as well as her readers’ of the comparison of the president to pointy-eared Dr. Spock, the logical Vulcan whose lack of affect is offset by his courage and devotion to principle. As she described the president’s reaction to the foiled terrorist attack on Christmas day, Dowd does not invoke the similarity as a compliment, nor do her most of readers, at least those who comment, take it that way. Some do, though. Those who interpret Obama’s Spockian demeanor as sang-froid see it in positive contrast it to, in the words of one, “McCain reacting to [the trouser bomber]: blood vessels on his forehead pulsing, his face turning beet red as he orders all passengers to travel without underwear.” Or another, describing a “Rep. from NY who’s [sic] red faced hand-wringing rant on the Sunday talk shows was anything but reassuring.”
I like hyperbole as much as the next person. In fact, I probably like it more. I like my comparisons sharply drawn. I have even been known to elbow aside the truth if it stands in the way of an irresistible simile. But I wonder if it might not be time for a change, a new year’s resolution to cool our feverish political discourse. There is much more in the landscape of American politics than a choice between two extremes. Our president on the one hand a cool, calm, and collected alien (I wonder if it was a birther who was the first to compare Obama to Spock?), and his political rivals on the other cardiac cases waiting to happen, wild-eyed spittle-spraying Yosemite Sams? Well, no, not exactly. Sure it’s a gas to turn political figures into cartoon versions of themselves, and the resulting reductio ad absurdum may in fact reveal fundamental truths, but caricature also eliminates the possibility of common ground, shared interests and—reductio ad absurdum—true national interest.
Which leads me back to our president. Stiff, gangly and long-limbed, he is a stick figure of a man. His don (Oxford or Chicago, take your pick)-like persona a mask of perfection. He can’t be caricatured because he already is a caricature. The American people cannot look to him as their defender of national interest, as the living, breathing, emoting leader who shares in their dreams of a peaceful and prosperous nation. Stick figures are incapable of those things.
Give up hyperbole? Maybe next year.