Nov 192007
…on November 19th 1863, one of America’s greatest presidents gave one of America’s most famous and influential speeches. Preceded by a masterful 2-hour oration—now practically forgotten—by Edward Everett, these remarks lasted a mere two minutes. The reaction at the time was muted, though some were surprised at the brevity of the speech. Of course, by the standards of the modern sound-bite, the Gettysburg Address is positively long-winded:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This speech is justly famous. In a paltry two minutes Lincoln conveys the futility of the ceremony, the enormity of the preceding sacrifice, and the resolve to which that sacrifice ought to move the audience. The point is communicated clearly, forcefully, and with emotion. Importantly, something of substance is said.

Modern political communication, on the other hand, is almost stringently dedicated to not saying anything. Tired talking points and empty blandishments are repeatedly trotted out to an ever more disconnected and disinterested audience. Press agents and campaign materials label as “bold” and “visionary” candidates whose speeches inescapably depict them as timid and insipid. Why have so many reacted so strongly and positively to Ron Paul, even though he is undeniably one crazy motherfucker? Because he says something. Maybe it’s crazy, but at least there’s an underlying message aside from “I am trying to offend as few people as possible”. Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, and Romney are people, not robots, so they must have some actual point of view. Why not express it?

It’s fair tor criticize modern political discourse for its dedication to the 15-second sound bite, but that’s not sufficient. Brevity in moderation is not injurious to discourse per se, but it is if nothing of substance is conveyed. In just two minutes you can say something, perhaps even something that’s important and immortal. The problem with today’s politics isn’t the length of a sound-bite, it’s the emptiness of both the words and of the ideas they are meant to express.

  One Response to “Seven-score and four years ago…”

  1. Well said (err…written). My mom always said she thought Jimmy Carter didn't get re-elected because he was too honest and actually stated his opinions, even when he knew those opinions weren't necessarily popular. Let's hope American voters figure out that wishy-washy is not a positive attribute.

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