On Political Aphorisms

I ruined at least one person’s breakfast yesterday when, during an appearance on The Takeaway to discuss aphorisms (or the lack thereof) in the second presidential debate, I illustrated my point that political slogans are,  by design, almost content-less by citing the Obama campaign slogan “Change you can believe in.” At least one listener found this slanted, further noting that most of the successful political aphorisms I cited during the program were from Republicans. I realize now that, during this time of crisis when what America needs is true bi-partisanship, I should have reached across the aisle and stated explicitly that the McCain campaign slogan, “Country first,” is more or less meaningless, too. My point is, ALL political slogans, from any political party, are deliberately designed to be empty vessels that voters can fill with whatever they please. Political slogans are meant to cast a wide net and sweep up as many people as possible in the context of an uplifting, engaging yet completely vague sentiment. Aphorisms, on the other hand, are unsettling, provocative and intended to make you question assumptions; hence, they are not very popular with politicians.

Neither McCain nor Obama seem, to me at least, to be natural aphorists. Some great politicians of the past have been, though. Lincoln was a brilliant aphorist:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

And so was Truman:

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.

The aphoristic phrases that candidates use say a lot about them, I think. In both debates so far, Obama has said, in reference to proposed budget cuts, a variation on the theme that McCain wants to

take a hatchet to the budget when what you need is a scalpel.

That’s a very professorial, parsing approach, in keeping with Obama’s cool and cerebral take on issues. McCain, in contrast, takes a much more tough-talking, straight-shooting, rough-riding approach. In the first debate, he cited former Secretary of State George Schultz:

If you point a gun at somebody, you better be prepared to pull the trigger.

That’s an aphorism worthy of a true “maverick,” in keeping with the McCain’s invocation of the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, a hero of McCain’s and another great presidential aphorist. (In the interests of bi-partisanship and familial comity, may I also add here that the Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor both, were also great aphorists.)

The best aphorism of the campaign so far, though, comes not from a politician but from Peggy, the woman in New Hampshire who came up with the last question of the second debate:

What don’t you know and how will you learn it?

This is exactly the question aphorisms ask of us! Aphorisms inspire as they challenge, and it is the ‘challenging’ part that politicians find so, well, challenging. These are extraordinarily challenging times; aphorisms pry open our minds by slipping some healthy doubt, skepticism, and self-reflection into our thinking. It is in this mental space that aphorisms open up that new ideas, new solutions can form. Neither candidate really answered Peggy’s question. A shame, really, because as Mark Twain (was he a Democrat or a Republican?) said:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so …