Carter, Dukakis and you: Back in the day, minstrels had to memorize Homer. They'd never heard of books!
Memorization plays a key role in modern punditry too. Just last week, we looked in on Jim Lehrer as he recited some memorized tales.
All leading pundits know these tales, although they often aren’t true.
We also checked out the National Journal’s Jill Lawrence as she sang famous old tales. We were linked to Lawrence’s songs by this Ezra Klein post.
Lawrence was musing on Martin O’Malley’s chance to win the White House. Right out of the gate, she sang one of those memorized tales:
LAWRENCE: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley made news at the National Governors Association conference last weekend by acknowledging the obvious – that he is laying the foundation for a possible presidential campaign. What really struck me, though, was his assertion that the nation is enduring "a crisis of confidence" that will last through the 2014 midterms.Nice one! Lawrence went on (and on) from there, but surely you know how this ended.
The phrase called to mind Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech of 1979, in which he lamented that the country had not come together to solve its problems.
Carter never actually used the word "malaise"–but he did use the phrase "crisis of confidence." In fact, it was the title of the speech.
Jimmy Carter's depressing speech is a famous memorized tale. Just as ancient bards knew how to recite the wrath of Zeus, all good members of Lawrence’s guild have memorized this tale.
And they’ve got a million others! Soon, Lawrence moved from Carter to Dukakis. Again, she started to sing:
LAWRENCE: Let's just get the bad news out of the way all at once. O'Malley's summer reading list, according to TIME, includes Richard Haass' Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order; The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government, by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer; and Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Suffice it to say that Swedish Land-Use Planning seems positively frivolous in comparison. That was the book that 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis read at the beach, sealing his image as a colorless nerd. Another Democrat that Democrats generally try not to emulate.An even more impressive performance! This is a lesser memorized tale concerning Dukakis’ colorless failures.
Not for Lawrence the pitiful twaddle of Lehrer, concerning the way Dukakis should have punched Bernie Shaw right in the nose!
It’s very hard for people to see it, but these savants are barely sane. An astounding amount of their punditry consists in the application of memorized tales, just as the wandering minstrels of yore used to perform their Homer.
Muskie wept! Bush glanced at his watch! Nixon won the debate on the radio! Most of these memorized tales are bogus, misleading or just plain false. But guild members know them all by heart. And they love to sing.
We chuckled to see Lawrence playing this game. We recalled a special performance.
In March 1999, the guild assembled one of its most consequential tales: Al Gore said he invented the Internet! In fairness, Gore hadn’t really said that—and he hadn’t said the word “invented” at all.
But “invented” made Gore sound like a real clown. And it was easy to memorize!
Within days, everyone had the paraphrase down. Lawrence would go the extra mile. That fall, she co-wrote a piece in USA Today where she and Susan Page sang the story thusly:
PAGE AND LAWRENCE (10/28/99): The evening gave Gore the opportunity to reintroduce himself as a less formal, more engaging figure, telling jokes and teasing questioners. He used the occasion to plead guilty to having exaggerated his role in "inventing" the Internet.As Page and Lawrence sang the tale, “invented” slipped inside quotes. Just as if Gore had once said it!
These people memorize many tales. Sometimes, despite their rigorous training, they slip up in their recitations, trying to drive home a point.
Unhelpful gaffe by Hall: Mimi Hall beat Page and Lawrence to the “invented” trick. In May 1999, she became the first reporter at USA Today to slip “invented” inside quotes, just as if Gore had said it.
Gore hadn’t said the word “invented!” Unless you were reading Hall, seven weeks later:
HALL (6/2/99): A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll last week found Gore trailing both Republican front-runner George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, another likely GOP candidate.In fairness, Hall was right! That gaffe surely didn’t help Gore, especially the way she told it.
A series of negative news stories unnerved Gore's campaign staff, aides say...A couple of Gore gaffes, including his assertion that he "invented" the Internet, didn't help.
Our best advice to Brother O'Malley? Say as little as possible!