After Al Gore had invented the internet and remembered hearing a folk song as a child which was not written until he was an adult, he headed down to Texas to view the damage when fires swept through the state. Except he didn't. Before him, Tony Blair tried to run away from school and board a charter flight abroad at Newcastle airport as a boy, except there weren't any from that airport to the boy Blair's destination back then. Gordon Brown spoke eloquently of his parents' experience of the travails of small business, which came as news to them. William Hague drank 14 pints of beer as a teenager, a feat which has defeated hardened alcoholics.
Political fibbing is so gloriously childlike, so easily found out and yet so utterly irresistible. The higher they climb, the more intense the desire to reshape reality in accordance with the needs of the moment. Higher doses of political resonance are required to be wrung from a finite store of experience. Everyman becomes Everyliar.
The transparent or easily detectable fib is an indicator of the absurd pressure on modern politicians to never miss a beat, to have an answer ready at all times. Nothing is feared more in an election campaign than a silence after a question, which could suggest the speaker is lost for an answer. This is verbal mortal combat, and truth is the first casualty of a war on spontaneous communication.
Watching the last of the US presidential debates yesterday was akin to consuming an hour's worth of cold porridge: no salt or sugar added. What have they done to language, so that it is stripped of any tension and meaning? What is the difference between "affirmative action" (Gore) and "affirmative access" (Bush)?
And what is all of this doing to us, the voters? We had better find out, because whatever is happening in the United States is surely happening to us as well. I noticed after an hour that very little of what was being said had left any impact on me at all. The words were acting as hypnosis, rather than a free-flowing method communicating ideas, passions and prejudices. These are shifts towards unmeaning and they are becoming so anchored in political debate that we no longer notice them. Both candidates' websites are now running guidelines to "sorting reality from rhetoric" in the debate so that bemused Americans can find out what the hell it all meant.
For the practitioners, this is just the continuation of the usual hearts-and-minds battle by other means. Trevor Beattie, who will run New Labour's advertising campaign, gave an engaging talk at this newspaper's Labour Conference fringe meeting on the antiquity of soundbites, beginning with "Veni, vidi, vici", through "Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George". Adept political campaigners, he said, simply couch their sales pitch in the language of the moment. The challenge is to get it right. Clinton's vision of "a bridge to the 21st century" was perfectly pitched full of millennial optimism, perfectly inclusive and perfectly empty of any meaning. New Labour, New Britain, the most plangent of Tony Blair's soundbites, performed the same function for him.
But that does not seem to me to capture the essence or the importance of what is happening. There is a change or perhaps that should be a "step change", since the jargon of aerobics now meanders through Clinton, Gore, Blair and Hague speeches. The striking thing about American and British politics is how closely their language has become intertwined.
The big prescriptions on health, social policy, education and welfare were cast in the language we know only too well from our own leaders. "Failing schools" is a phrase imported from America, as is "welfare into work". The "opportunity society" is always about to knock here and there. There is so much "transparency" around that its meaning is quite opaque. "Hardworking families", the patron saints of middle America, were adopted by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and canonised anew in William Hague's conference speech. Government-headed paper spews out of Whitehall promising "roll-outs" of policies and something called "benchmarking quality". Words suggest that something of great moment is happening, when really, government is just meandering through its business.
Clinton and Dick Morris, the White House strategist who sealed his gifts into the persuasive package that withstood every failure, every betrayal, every assault, have left an indelible mark on all Third-Way politicians: the acceptance that the first task of a would-be office-holder must be to define a large and significant group of voters and accommodate him or herself to their perceptions. At the same time, as Nicholas Lemann points out in the current New Yorker essay on the manufacture of political rhetoric, they are seeking to shape those perceptions, without saying so. He cites Frank Luntz, the engaging Republican pollster/wordsmith, whose guidelines include the information that words ending or starting in "r" or ending in "-ity" are generally positively received, that the use of "listening" and "children" are good, while "Washington" and "politician" are bad.
The Stepford Wives begin to look like models of originality the further we travel down this road. If the people we elect to rule us are effectively packages of pre-approved qualities, their very words genetically modified before they are spoken, the only possible result is a convergence of policy, tone, and ultimately of politicians, and a narrowing of the possibilities.
The reason that Gore and Bush are so wearisome to watch is that they ape each other so carefully. The only time their contest came to life was in the previous debate, when Bush's comment on two men awaiting capital punishment, "Guess what? They're going to be put to death," showed the real, grim and chilling toughness of the man. By this week, the language men had got to him and he was at pains to insist that he was not unduly keen on the death penalty, but it was necessary. Gore followed, sheep-like.
As for life outside politics well, there is hardly any left for the seriously committed politician. In his Oprah interview the single televised event of the campaign most likely to influence middle America Gore stuck obediently to bland basics, naming his favourite band as The Beatles (who else?), his favourite food as Wheaties, his favourite film as Local Hero. And then, out of the blue or rather the red and the black he departed from these pappy certainties and divulged that his favourite book was Stendahl's torrid 19th-century novel of unconstrained individualism, Le Rouge et le Noir.
This became one of the most discussed details in the campaign. The finest minds in campaign strategy have been figuring out what the Vice President was trying to say. Stendahl's novel has no obvious political message beyond a vaguely constituted worship of Napoleonic liberty and Don't-Try-This-At-Home libertinism. The anti-hero, Julien Sorel, sleeps around and murders his old lover in church. He's guillotined. Perhaps it was simply that Stendahl's novel had also been a favourite of JFK, so this was nothing more than a literary homage to a well-loved philanderer of American politics.
Or maybe, just maybe, Al Gore simply enjoyed the book, damn it. I like to think so, although it is a fond hope. The space for democratic politicians to be anything other than the part a script demands is shrinking. Gordon Brown "had to" marry to shore up leadership hopes. William and Ffion "have to" produce children soon in order to tick off the "not-weird" box conclusively.
The price of even potential success is abnormal normality. Frank Luntz summarises his experiments in the political word lab as follows: "Perception is reality. In fact, perception is more important than reality." Oh, great. The civilised world went through the Enlightenment and evolved a form of rational democracy precisely to overturn that view. But it is back, all right. These are the new dark ages of perfect transparency, opportunity and a lot of other words ending in "-ity". In the beginning was the word. In the end, there were just words.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.