Syntactic Decay

Like many Americans, my main interest in last night’s Vice-Presidential Debate was the hope for a little schadenfreude: I wanted to see Palin dissolve in a “nucular” meltdown. And while the clumsy silences and passive aggressive volleys of her previous interviews weren’t on show last night, Palin still managed to cram her “answers” with stock speaking points and vague generalities–namely, what passes for political rhetoric today. What gets me is this: expectations for the doltish Palin were so low that without a spectacle gaffe, many pundits are today declaring her jabberwocky a success. For example, take David Brooks’s gushing op-ed piece in today’s New York Times:

By the end of her opening answers, it was clear she would meet the test. She spoke with that calm, measured poise that marked her convention speech, not the panicked meanderings of her subsequent interviews.

Okay, so, now, in 2008, as America seeks to prove that we can dare to be dumber than ever, it seems that anything above “panicked meanderings” equals success (Palin’s agitated mannerisms, particularly at the beginning of the debate, didn’t really strike me as “calm” or “measured” either). Fair and balanced FOX News reported that Palin’s “cool and confident performance . . . helped John McCain regain his footing.” I don’t know what specific data they have to back this claim up.

What FOX hailed as a “bravura performance” was yet another incoherent string of non-answers tarted up in sloganeering and divisive, diversionary rhetoric. Palin doesn’t understand the traditional purpose of debate; at one point she even said as much: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.” Near the end of the debate, when asked what her biggest weakness is, Palin simply didn’t answer: she just blasted out a bunch of talking points (I thought that I might’ve misheard the question, but no–check out the transcript here). Governor Palin, the point of the debate is to respond to questions and to respond and rebut your opponent’s responses. Is it too much to ask that you do this? Or is it that you simply have no answers? I believe it’s the latter.

What fascinated me most during the debate was Palin’s syntax. Her long, elliptical answers danced around the topic at hand in a showy, glittery masquerade of stock phrases, slowly disintegrating into the kind of glowing generalities that I guess Joe Six-Pack and his hockey mom wife are supposed to lap up (being an east-coast liberal elitist I simply don’t understand such realities of the Heartland; I’m far too busy eating latte salads in my Subaru while listening to gay operas and worshiping false idols to care about this kind of mundane peasant behavior).  At least one critic got it right. Also from today’s New York Times:

After a series of stumbling interviews that raised serious doubts even among conservatives about her fitness to serve as vice president, Ms. Palin had to do little more than say one or two sensible things and avoid an election-defining gaffe. By that standard, but only by that standard, the governor of Alaska did well. But Ms. Palin never really got beyond her talking points in 90 minutes, mostly repeating clichés and tired attack lines and energetically refusing to answer far too many questions.

Are specific answers too much to ask from our leaders? Or are we now okay with our politicians not even answering the questions that we ask?