Fighting over Fundamentals
Well, the election’s over so there’s no chance that anybody will possibly consider publishing this piece. But I thought I’d share my draft here anyway. Let me know what you think. It is an attempt to glean some little wisdom from a failed attempt at being a political pundit.
It has become a popular sport in pundit and blogger circles to go nuts analyzing the frequency of words that presidents and candidates say. How many times did Dubya mention “Iraq,” compared to “Afghanistan,” compared to “Christmas”? And who said “change” more, Obama or McCain? There are two reasons that account for this habit. One, it’s less taxing than thinking about more consequential news items while boasting a higher rate of return among election-obsessed audiences. Two, pundits have a lot in common with political operatives: both cogitate in soundbytes. Consequently, fixating on words is a pretty sensible voodoo for figuring out what a candidate and his or her advisors are worrying about, for whatever that is worth.
Political sportscasting isn’t usually my thing, but I got sucked in after the second debate between John McCain and Barack Obama drove me so up the wall I had to turn it off. What did it was one word: “fundamental” (including “fundamentals” and “fundamentally,” but not “fundamentalist”). Or rather, in stump-speak, “fun-daa-mental.” They kept saying it again and again, as if to subliminally pummel it into my brain. So, after shutting off the TV, I began to get curious. What if there is more going on here than meets the eye? Maybe a little digging around the word could take us closer to the real, fundamental cores of these two men who aspire to take the helm of the free world. There are other words, like “change” and “country,” that might come up more often. But I chose my word for the sort of sacredness it carries, for how it claims to reach at the barest sources of our convictions. Borrowing the pundits’ prized method—the word-count analysis—I resolved myself to spend a spare morning putting “fundamental” to the test.
What one hopes, with all this tedious counting, to discover something invisible to the naked human senses. Technology makes this method more appealing and visually dazzling. Using advanced algorithms and computer graphics is a great way for you and your audience to be sure you’re on the cutting edge. Though I know a few programming languages, I hesitantly confess I didn’t indulge. Hopefully it won’t destroy my credibility to say I used only Google Site Search and the find function in Firefox. Nor have I drawn any slick graphics.
I began with some background. Have past presidents used “fundamental” in any special way? By searching several archives of presidential utterances, I found that Harry Truman takes the historical cake. Three separate speeches came up in which he said it 4 times each. The first, from 1947 in Mexico City, was a restatement of FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy in Latin America. Truman cheered “fundamental freedoms” and hoped for permanent peace despite “fundamental differences in political philosophies” between nations. The second is all talk about “fundamental rights,” delivered later that year against the anti-union Taft-Hartley Bill. Thirdly, I found a 1950 address before an “Attorney General’s Conference on Law Enforcement Problems” that edged “fundamental” closer to the sense of “fundamentalist.” “The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law,” he said, “was given to Moses on the Mount.”
Truman’s usages are not anything unexpected, and they cover the general spread of all the other occurrences my searches turned up. Woodrow Wilson had one speech with 4 “fundamental”s and another with 3. Calvin Coolidge had one with 4. Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan each had one with 3, while speaking of special interests and national security, respectively. George Washington mentioned “fundamental principle” and “fundamental maxims” in his Farewell Address of 1796. Abraham Lincoln used the word a few times, too, in thoroughly unsurprising ways. If my historical survey told me anything, it was this: “fundamental” is just a word. Nothing special.
Last time around, John Kerry presaged this year’s debates by revolving one of his regular stump speeches around “the fundamental choice” between himself and George W. In the version he gave at Cooper Union in New York on August 24, 2004, “fundamental” came up 7 times. As far as I can tell, Kerry set the record.
It didn’t last long. 2008 has seen more “fundamental”-ism than ever before. There were early signs in the primaries, during which John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani each said the word several times in a sitting. Things began to get hot and heavy when, at the first signs of financial crisis, John McCain joined President Bush in assuring that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” At the Democratic convention, Barack Obama hammered McCain for saying so, and in the process used the word 4 times. Two weeks later, McCain insisted on this point again, only explaining that by “fundamentals” he meant not the economic system but the American worker. When he went on to use the word 3 times at Rick Warren’s Leadership and Compassion Forum, it was all in terms of “fundamental rights.”
“Fundamental”‘s big night came on September 26, at the first debate between the candidates. Obama got it started by attacking McCain on the fundamentals of the economy (4 uses again), who returned by preaching his “fundamental belief” in our country and its workers (3 uses). But then the moderator, Jim Lehrer, noticing the odd pattern developing, added another sense of the word to the fray. “Using your word ‘fundamental,’” he asked McCain, “are there fundamental differences between your approach and Senator Obama’s?” In response, McCain went on to add 5 more uses, 3 in terms of difference and 2 miscellaneous. Obama spoke of 2 fundamental differences before the night was out. By the end, all told, the candidates had said “fundamental” a total of 15 times.
Next, on October 2, came the vice presidential debate. Joe Biden got a fire in his belly. He said “fundamental” (and this is an all-time record, mind you) 11 times! Doing so, he covered the whole gamut: fundamental difference, fundamental problem, fundamentals of the economy, and even fundamental change. Sarah Palin, the self-described maverick, managed to say it only once, but marching to the beat of her own grammatical drum: something about “the fundamental of our economy being strong.”
The second face-off between McCain and Obama scored 15 again (Obama 9, McCain 6), and this time with no prodding from the moderator. No wonder I had to turn the TV off. They talked about fundamental change, fundamental wrong, fundamental difference, fundamental economics, and fundamental strategy. Basically, whatever they could think to hang the word on. It was a fundamental pissing match, a fight over ownership of the word. When Lehrer suggested that it might be McCain’s, Obama and Biden had to team up and prove they have fundamental convictions too.
Whether this was planned or unplanned behind the scenes I’m not one to know. The campaigns don’t return my calls. But I tend to think not. I tend to think something rather more unconscious was going on between the two candidates, with Biden, also quite unconsciously, joining in. Maybe it was Sarah Palin’s lack of testosterone barfight instincts that kept her from jumping in too.
By the time of the third debate, I couldn’t bear to do more than watch the highlights on YouTube. But by then the boys had cooled down. The magic word came up only 5 times: Obama 4, McCain 1.
Having found none of the deep meanings I was hoping for, I resolved at first to dump these findings at my blog, where all my other self-indulgence goes to die. But I changed my mind. In my analysis I found exactly the opposite of what I hoped for, and with it, a message worth sharing here. Rather than some font of conviction, the word unravels a parable about politics dirtying principle.
Such pitiful theatrics corrode the dignity that these genuinely admirable men surely possess. Fundamental differences? How can we believe you when you both say this same phrase again and again? Fundamental economics becomes fundamental workers? What is fundamental when the very meaning of “fundamental” keeps changing, when it can take any necessary shape? Follow the word, and watch men of conviction descending, for the sake of the contest, into nihilism: fighting over a word until it is empty.
Everybody knows that the best presidents, in recent memory, are ex-presidents. They take on a newfound lightness in their being and a new honesty in their leadership. When Al Gore lost in 2000, he could finally grow that beard and save the planet. Bill Clinton, Mr. Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, lets himself wear pink ties to his new office in Harlem. Jimmy Carter could become the saint, and H.W. could skydive again. The point is, it isn’t the fault of the candidates alone. In all of our eager-beaver scrutiny, our punditry, word counters like me are ruining the country. By turning politics into a Super Bowl of quantified analysis and minute-to-minute snap polls, we—yes, we—destroy its essence and its promise. The way we treat words rubs off on our leaders who have to use them. And the way we obsess gives journalists, such as myself, free reign not to worry about anything else.
Democratic process needs a certain amount of scrutiny, but please, not to the point of nonsense.
tags: celebrity, language, politics, powers, psychology