Thursday, December 16, 2004

"Rover! Here, boy! Flag! Cross! Why Isn't This Working?!?"

Peggy Noonan has a good column about the Democrats and their search for the "secret message" or "symbol" that will win them elections like it does Republicans. There's a very interesting (and exceedingly improbable) suggestion at the end.

The idea that the president is speaking in religious code to his religious followers says more about the reporters who asked the question than it does about the president, or his speechwriter.

It reminded me of something. Once, 20 years ago, I was working in the White House and received a call from a respected academic. Her area of claimed expertise was presidential rhetoric. She introduced herself and told me she wanted to talk about "the manipulation of symbols" in President Reagan's speeches. I told her I was not sure what she meant, could she tell me more.

She said, "You know, the flag--stars and stripes. He uses symbols like the flag in his speeches."

I thought about that. I said I couldn't think of anything the president had said about the flag, couldn't even remember him using the word flag. Could she give me another example of what she meant. She just pressed on about the manipulation of symbols and seemed to focus on flag imagery, so I told her someone in speechwriting had given the president a Scott Fitzgerald quote recently on the meaning of being American. It was very moving. Maybe when the president speaks movingly of our country and its people she sort of sees flags in her imagination? She liked that. How do you all do that? she said. Do what? I said. Manipulate symbols that way, she said. I said, I don't think we "do" anything. We're just writers, we write. It's writing.

We rang off without having achieved the mind meld she hoped for. I thought about the conversation for years. My first thought was, You can get so well educated in America that your thoughts become detached from common sense. You can get so complicated in your thinking that the obvious isn't real to you anymore. I wondered if she didn't honestly think that it couldn't just be writing. She thought it was some kind of higher, dark and secret magic. She thought there were secret codes and symbols placed in speeches to communicate secret messages and elicit certain reactions.

And it is not only academics or journalists who sometimes think things like that. So do Democrats, at least if you go by the last election.

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