Another Write-wing Conspirator

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    Armchair philosopher, politically-incorrect political commentator, raconteur, retired air traffic controller, dilettante truck driver, US Army veteran, recluse, sometime-writer, redneck convert neè Buckeye, ne'er-do-well, bon vivant, unrepentant libertine, unapologetic libertarian, and (of course) curmudgeon…

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The Beauty of Brevity—and the KISS* Principle

Posted by The Curmudgeon on April 12, 2010

*Keep It Simple, Stupid

It’s said that Calvin Coolidge was once approached by the wife of a prominent political figure at a dinner party. “Mr. President,” she told him, “my husband bet me that I wouldn’t be able to get you to say three words all evening.”

“You lose,” replied Coolidge, as he turned and walked away.

They didn’t call him “Silent Cal” for nothing.

This vignette is presented in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s seventeen-minute televised response to a simple tax question that could practically have been satisfied with an equally simple “yes” or “no.” Indeed, no one in recent memory is so adept as Obama at transforming a ten-second response into a speech of indeterminate length addressing a topic totally unrelated to the question presented. (Bret Baier of Fox News was recently excoriated by the left for vainly attempting to compel him to remain on-topic and furnish something resembling a straight answer—though he was probably destined to be excoriated, anyway, because…well, just because; such is the level of adoration showered upon The Anointed One by the “mainstream” media.) Having now endured countless Obama appearances spanning seemingly endless hours of empty talk, many who at the time ridiculed Bill Clinton’s then-legendary marathon speechifying now yearn wistfully for his relative brevity.

For politicians to exhibit galling degrees of verbosity and posturing is neither unusual nor even particularly new — there is a rich history of renowned orators and speeches immortalized for posterity — though Obama’s rather extreme performances are a little surprising, given the established trend toward parceling information in neat little sound bites. The practice is likely a by-product of avoiding taking firm stands on delicate issues or being tied to specific data; speaking in euphemisms, vague generalities and ambiguous terms lays the groundwork for later claims of “plausible deniability” and even outright reversals of policy should the need arise.

Nor is this wordiness confined to oration; need we be reminded of the recent epic-length health care legislation?

In general, we prefer that matters be kept more brief. Most of us lose interest in a speech the length of the State of the Union address after only a few minutes and a smattering of insincere standing ovations. We’re even less likely to read the entire health-care bill than Congress is (any bets on how many representatives still haven’t read it?). How many people have never read an entire installment contract when making a major purchase? We know we should—but most consumers simply don’t have the patience and self-discipline to choke the whole thing down (and are quickly befuddled by legalese, anyway). Even those same congressional representatives who are so practiced at wasting our time have established time-allotment rules regarding their own guests; office visits are uniformly short and sweet—and lobbyists long ago perfected the art of maximizing this “face time.” Apart from our severely-strained attention spans, we grow (rightly) suspicious when confronted with protracted speeches or documents of daunting length; more often than not, the speeches are intended not to inform or explain, but to sell—and book-length legislation typically conceals as much as it reveals.

Charles Krauthammer wryly noted that the aforementioned Obama soliloquy was many times longer even than Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—and said far less. While Lincoln was himself noted for his own lengthy speeches, one might surmise that he was under the influence of Robert Browning’s immortal missive that day, adopting the “less is more” approach. Indeed (contrary to popular belief), Lincoln was not the keynote speaker at the dedication of what was then known as the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg; noted orator Edward Everett was. Everett’s presentation had lasted a full two hours when Lincoln finally rose to deliver what was listed in the program as “Dedicatory Remarks”—and stepped into history.

The difference between the two men’s efforts? Everett summed it up in a brief note he penned to Lincoln the following day, requesting a copy of Lincoln’s address:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

That’s right; two minutes. *

Ah, the beauty of brevity.

We have our favorite eloquent speakers and writers who delight us with elegant prose; what we need now is a crop of public figures who get to the point, give straight answers, and know when to shut the hell up.

Which is why I virtually deify Calvin Coolidge. Can’t say that I know much about the man’s politics — nor care — but he had (borrowing a line from Sir John Gielgud’s characterization of “Hobson” in the film Arthur) “a wonderful economy with words.”

At a press conference amid growing economic concern, a reporter asked Coolidge for his thoughts regarding the inflationary trend that was then insinuating itself into the financial picture.

Silent Cal’s reply?

“I’m against it.”

Oh, bless that man.

* Don’t believe me? Go read it—and time yourself. I dare you. (It’s still a good read, by the way.) Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address



One Response to “The Beauty of Brevity—and the KISS* Principle”

  1. LarryZ said

    Ignorance and arrogance is already a deadly combination, to add(nauseum) long-windedness to these is simply cruel.
    There is often an eloquency in brief,straight to the point responses.

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