Humor, Humility, and Rhetorical Courage

American pols could learn a thing or two from Tony Blair.

Blair: It's more than just the accent
Blair: It’s more than just the accent

Many Americans feel vaguely dissatisfied with the condition of our politics but have a hard time articulating exactly why. If you’re among them, you should take a close look at Tony Blair’s speech to a joint session of Congress last Thursday. In his own country, the British prime minister is regarded as an “American-style” politician, which is not a compliment. Furthermore, the speech was built around a very tired cliché—the importance of freedom (how people yearn for it, how other cherished values depend on it, how it will triumph, and so on). And in his specific purpose of justifying the war in Iraq, Blair was not persuasive (at least to me).

Nevertheless, watching on television, I found myself feeling, briefly, that politics mattered to me and I, as a citizen, mattered to politics. These are the feelings that Americans feel the lack of when they complain about politics and politicians. How did Blair do it? This column has room for only a few examples.

In part, of course, it’s just the British accent, which to American ears makes any words sound authoritative. And in part it’s simple eloquence. But Blair’s speech also had qualities that go beyond eloquence. They might be summed up as rhetorical courage. These are qualities like complexity, humility, reality, irony, and freshness. Rhetorical courage comes down to a willingness to be interesting. Interesting can be dangerous, so American pols tend to avoid it.

All it takes for an American politician to be branded as “thoughtful” is to quote Santayana a few times about how those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Blair built his discussion of terrorism around the opposite point. “There never has been a time when … a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day.”

American pols have asserted that terrorism is something new. But the notion that history is there to draw lessons from is so deeply baked into our political rhetoric that it’s almost more like a rule of grammar than a factual proposition. Even if this thought about nothing to learn from history had occurred to a president, or to the folks he employs to have thoughts for him, he or they would likely suppress it for fear of seeming to endorse a cavalier attitude about kids doing their homework. And in American attack politics, that fear might be fully justified.

“Even in all our might, we are taught humility,” Blair said, referring to the current closure problem in Iraq. American politicians often claim implausibly to be “humbled” by whatever blah blah blah they happen to be speaking about. The surprise here is that a politician is claiming humility in the context of a genuine humiliation, and telling his audience to feel humiliated as well. And throughout his speech, Blair demonstrated humility without asserting it. In making the banal point that you should want freedom for others as well as yourself, he said, “It is this sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty.” What American politician, in a big speech, would raise the issue of whether loving liberty is immorally selfish? If weapons of mass destruction are never found, “history will forgive” America and Britain because at least we destroyed an evil government. American Iraq hawks make the same basic argument, but never framed as a matter of the greatest nation on earth needing forgiveness from anybody, let alone from history.

Blair may not mean any of this. What’s impressive is not his alleged humility but his courage to be interesting, which is risky. Also his flattering—and risky—assumption that we, his audience, can handle slightly complex ideas and don’t mind being swept up in his humiliathon. An “idea” in American politics means a 14-point plan for reforming Medicare. Blair’s speech was full of ideas in the classic sense of thoughts worth sharing, often shared in vivid language, just as often with no particular policy implication except that citizens of a democracy are grown-ups.

The prime minister told a good joke, no doubt hoary in England, about the suffragist Mrs. Pankhurst advising the first Labour leader, Keir Hardie *, to run on a platform of “votes for women, chastity for men and prohibition for all.” Heard any good Warren G. Harding jokes lately? Heard any good jokes at all in a politician’s speech? A joke must be dangerous to be good. It should at least come near to offending someone. American pols, with some exceptions (John McCain for one), prefer to be safe and stale.

The context of this joke was Blair’s own seeming endorsement of doubling the American gasoline tax—a notion he surely deserves points for bringing up. When this proposal came up at a world leaders chin-wag, Blair reported, Bush gave the speaker “a most eloquent look,” which is a most eloquent way to put it. So is casually referring to heroin as the “wicked residue” of the poppy. American politicians confuse eloquence with grandiloquence and usually save their modest stock of it for drumroll moments, not amusing asides.

Tony Blair even stood in front of the United States Congress and said, “As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but, in fact, it is transient.” American politicians giving big speeches sometimes say that America’s position in the world is at stake in whatever matter they happen to be addressing. But invariably they are certain that Americans will rise to the challenge. Blair’s revelation that America will not be the No. 1 country in the world forever, whatever we do, is important news indeed. And it took a foreigner to clue us in.

Correction, July 23, 2003: Keir Hardie was the first leader of Britain’s Labour Party, not Labour’s first prime minister, as was originally stated. [ Return to the corrected sentence.]