So we can stipulate that Ezra Klein is a magificent grasper of the obvious—attempts at communication often fail to yield results—and his main source, Professor Propeller Headwards, is a master at locating intellectual imbeciles who are easy to debunk, because they were never bunked in the first place.
But why do the editors of The New Yorker think there's a gullible audience for an article announcing the rediscovery that the earth is not the center of the solar system?
They must think people just don't understand just how mysterious communication is. Notice, I don't say "complex," because "complex" implies that with enough concentration, all the dynamics can be coralled and accounted for. Not with communication.
Klein and Propeller Headwards go so far as to show that in some cases a presidential speech actually has the opposite of its intended effect. As if this never happens in their marital arguments!
And as with a beleaguered spouse, a president's audience usually knows full well what he is trying to achieve with his words … simultaneously suspects the speech is really about something else … has developed infinite conflicting and yet deep-seated attitudes about the issue at hand … is comparing the speech to everything else the spouse has ever said … will compare the speech to everything the spouse ever says in the future. Or, on the other hand, may not be listening at all because she thinks she's heard it all a million times before.
A president giving a speech is a quarterback throwing into very tight coverage.
He knows it. His speechwriters know it. And most of the listeners know it.
But the ball must be thrown, mustn't it? "If you don't try it at all," political strategist Paul Begala tells Klein, "it guarantees you won't persuade anybody."
A welder welds, a teacher teaches, a writer writes and a president leads—partly, through public proclamation.
Could President Obama spend less time giving ceremonial remarks and more time making personal relationships with legislators in private negotiations, as President Johnson did? I have wondered that myself. As an editor of a magazine of called Vital Speeches of the Day, I can tell you that precious few speeches, presidential or otherwise, qualify as being "vital" communications. No one wishes more fervently than I for fewer symbolic speeches and more strategic ass-crackers. No one, except maybe the White House speechwriting team, and President Obama himself.
Are all these speeches really necessary? Could we be better spending our time in another way? I bet these questions have occurred to the White House people over and over again. I will someday put it to them.
But to point to presidential speeches that were ineffective and to suggest that speeches don't do any good in general …
"Who listens to a president?" Ezra Klein asks. More people, I hope, than listen to a New Yorker writer who takes four thousand words to tell us what we already know.