"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Wit, Smarts, And Most Of All A Silver Tongue–The Art Of Elegant Deception

“Charm and a silver tongue will get you everywhere”, Farley Burnham told his young son. “The only lesson you will ever need to know.”  This bit of wisdom is of course not new, and ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ was the the guiding principle of P.T. Barnum, the greatest huckster in American history.

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Although there have been plenty of pretenders to his throne, none understood the absolute gullibility of the American consumer than Barnum.  No matter how exaggerated his claims or preposterous the creatures in his side shows, people packed his big tent and kept coming back for more.

The list of evangelical hucksters is long and storied.  Starting with Amy Semple McPherson, many followed in her footsteps - Billy Sunday, Elmer Gantry, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Rick Warren. Every Sunday these pastors and many more like them sold a bill of goods to the faithful who packed their revival tents and mega-churches, filled the offering baskets, and wrote generous checks.

Dostoevsky suggests that Christ was the original huckster, offering man the promise of redemption and salvation but guaranteeing him nothing and consigning him to a live of hunger and misery.  Christ’s rejection of the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness and His crafting of a message of hope to billions who would follow him – “Man does not live by bread alone” – was no more than a bill of goods.

Everyone is on the snake oil circuit – salesmen, politicians, Hollywood moguls, evangelical preachers, and the Catholic Church.  Ivan, railing at Christ says that the Church never took Him seriously but were overjoyed at His words which provided the foundation for millennia of deception, manipulation, and venality.

Robbie Burnham went on to an impressive career in law – the profession in which the power of persuasion is supreme.  Too many facts will confuse a jury, too few will leave them unconvinced; but a few facts spun within elegant, smooth, and sophisticated oratory will win them over every time.  The best lawyers know that this fluid, seductive, and engaging oratory is not reserved just for opening and closing arguments, but is never be absent.  The questioning of witnesses is an opportunity to display confidence, an apt theatrical ability to introduce suggestion and innuendo, and to embellish the principle themes of the legal argument.

The impeccable dress of successful trial attorneys complements their eloquence.  A well-tailored, expensive, but tasteful suit, matching silk tie, and modestly stylish Italian shoes are the symbols of confidence, professional attainment, and ability.  A handsome,  man in an Armani suit, who addresses the jury with charm, clarity, and an unhesitating, well-timed delivery is unbeatable.

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Robbie knew this, and was especially careful in selecting jurors who not only would be favorable to the legal arguments he would make but who would be admiring of him.  He selected women who wanted him and men who liked him – not hard to do in a society which places supreme importance on looks, charm, eloquence, and wealth. 

Of course charm, looks, and a silver tongue, are only ninety-percent of success; and Robbie never slacked in his legal preparation – careful review of precedent, the facts of the case, inconsistencies to be exploited, weaknesses to be exposed.  It was no surprise to anyone that he was The Lawyer on K Street.

As much has his adversaries tried to come up to his impeccable standards, their futile attempts made them even more secondary.  When Robbie and the prosecutor were standing side-by-side, no one could help but notice the prosecutor's ill-fitting inexpensive suit, cotton socks, badly-patterned tie, and scuffed shoes.  He was public sector from head to toe, and while jurors might identify in principle with government and respond to lawyerly appeals to democratic spirit and judicial equality, they wanted to be Robbie.  His demeanor, carriage, and perfectly-turned out attitude spoke to the aspirations of the jury, not their current life.

Donald Trump has none of Robbie Burnham’s grace and sophistication, nor his polished silver tongue; but few politicians can match him on the stump.  Trump is a master of a particular kind of oratory – not the stirring, brilliantly crafted speeches of Marc Antony who won a credulous, emotional crowd with his irony, his turn of phrase, and his diffidence, but one of bombast, vaudevillian low humor, and a carny barker’s appeal.  Trump, jowly, overweight, bad hair, and ungraceful, can never compare to the harmonious sophistication of Robbie, but he can turn a crowd his way in a minute.  His one liners, ad hominem right-on cynical caricatures of his opponents, and his unconcealed mockery are part of his shtick, all delivered with perfect timing, gestures, and attitude, but balanced with an equally exaggerated patriotism and political savvy.

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It is the nature of the Left to be serious.  There is nothing to laugh about in today’s racist, homophobic, Robber Baron era, they say.  Climate Armageddon is near, adventurous wars on the horizon, regression to a patriarchal, fundamentalist, boorish past is upon us.  Let the buffoon in the White House laugh and make fun of us, they shout, his time will come.  Their principles are permanent, unalterably good, and persuasive in their own right. There is no need for oratory. 

Yet Joe Biden, Democratic candidate for President – a man seriously overmatched by Trump in style, eloquence, mental agility, wit, and self-confidence – will have to go toe-to-toe with him in the debates.  His supporters, deeply steeped in this progressive ethos – that rightness always prevails – are not worried.  His handlers, on the other hand – the ones who have kept him masked in his bunker and available only for marshmallow interviews – are indeed worried. Honest Joe cannot possibly keep up with Trump’s insistence, fast-and-loose delivery, no-holds-barred attacks, and supreme certainty.  

There is no room for reasoned argument on the stage with Trump, only a tit-for-tat fabulist show.  Yet Biden, forever harnessed to an old-fashioned faux rectitude and old chestnut notions of kindness, compassion, and understanding, cannot possibly throw charges around like old-style political mudslingers.  His supporters, it seems, would prefer losing while maintaining dignity and respect for the essentiality of the progressive agenda than winning at any cost.

Of course his shills in Congress are doing the dirty work for Biden.  They have been at Donald Trump for four years with unremittingly vengeful attacks.  They are not beneath savaging Trump’s Supreme Court candidate, Amy Coney Barrett by disparaging her faith, her family, and her moral probity.  She is an easy, vulnerable target who will not fight back.  The Left has had no success discrediting Trump, so they pile on Barrett.  House Speaker Pelosi has been the out-front, self-righteous voice of the Democratic majority hammering away at Trump for his defilement of American society and destruction of its institutions.  None of this has had much success, and has only served to harden Trump supporters. 

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If Trump wins the election we can look forward to another show of vaudevillian showmanship, circus tent exaggeration, and side show humor.  There are some who think that without another campaign to run, Trump will turn moderate and respectful; but nothing doing.  Only if the House and the Senate are Republican might he lighten up; but if the Hillary defeat is any indication, those Democrats left in power after this election will be even more shocked, hurt, and bitterly vengeful than ever before.

It is not that Trump has no substantive ideas or achievements – he has stood up to the Chinese, Iran, and North Korea.  He has made an uncomfortable but mutually respectful peace with Putin.  He has lowered taxes, decreased inhibiting regulations, pushed back against the cancel culture, kangaroo courts, attacks on religion, and social anarchy.  Because of Trump’s time in Hollywood, on television, in Las Vegas, and on the streets of New York; his art of the deal, his outrageous personality, and his unabashed courting of the low bourgeoisie  - yachts, mansions, football, NASCAR, and arm candy – he is quintessentially American.

Robbie Burnham’s friends suggested that he go into politics, but although he had been able to win over juries for decades, living in a world of nothing but Alexander Hamilton’s unwashed masses would be too much.  There would be too much compromise involved, too much repetition, and far too little reward.  The power of the Presidency was nothing compared to looking into the eyes of jurors, seducing them, winning them over, making them believe him.  This was real power, influence, and authority.  He had no shills, no cheering supporters, no political machine.  It was he and he alone in the arena, and he loved it.