Presidents are often accused of employing "empty rhetoric," a charge directed at Republican presidents as well as Democrats, including the current occupant of the Oval Office. This is neither a new phenomenon nor a new criticism, however. And it's not always because the presidents in question are empty-headed. Sometimes, practical politics requires a requisite reservoir of abstract ambiguity.
The ancillary alliteration in the previous sentences (and this one, too) was done deliberately, as I'm thinking this morning of Warren G. Harding, the 29th U.S. president, who died in San Francisco 98 years ago today. While campaigning in 1920, Harding declared the following:
America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
Such rhetoric strikes us today as fatuous, and comically so. (Or, in Harding-speak, as purposeless purple prose.) It struck many of his contemporaries the same way. William Gibbs McAdoo, Treasury secretary during the Wilson administration -- and a 1920 Democratic presidential candidate himself -- dismissed Harding's speaking style as "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea."
That was a funny rejoinder, but Harding's ornate oratory actually served a function: The last phrase in the passage above, for example, was not a throwaway line. The internationality/nationality dodge was deliberately designed to obscure Harding's position on U.S. admission into the League of Nations. Consequently, in the election that November, voters on both sides of that controversial question thought Harding was with them.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.