It's a new day in America, one in which eloquence is a bad thing, at least if you're willing to take seriously John McCain's sarcastic remarks at the third presidential debate: we voters are to be suspicious of Barack Obama's eloquence. (here code for slipperiness, deceit, chicanery...fast-talkin' ---Yep, we've got to lose the g).
When the debate turned to the topic of abortion, after Obama and McCain had both explained their positions, McCain came down on "the eloquence of Senator Obama" in reference to Obama's position that he is for a ban on partial birth abortions except when the health of the mother is at stake. McCain used to the word "eloquence" to suggest that for Obama and "the pro-abortion movement in America," the health of the mother could "mean almost anything." McCain criticized someone for using words in such a way that they can mean virtually anything when he himself perverted the meaning of the word "eloquence."
Sure McCain was being sarcastic. Still he was attacking Obama and, by associating Obama with eloquence, McCain was attacking eloquence itself, characterizing it as a kind of a shell game with words, a way to hide meaning.
I double-checked the definition of eloquence not long ago just to see if something had changed, like maybe I'd been dropped in Opposite Day during a high school spirit week in which we deliberately do and say the antithesis of what we mean. "Hey kids, keep talking!" or "Put your gum under your desk so it ruins someone's pants, later." Maybe a little picture of Richard Nixon had been added next to the word since I last looked.
Eloquence, according to dictionary.com, includes this entry: "the practice or art of using language with fluency and aptness." For me, fluency is the relative ease with which someone expresses himself or herself, a mastery of language made apparent to others through written and spoken communication. Aptness is the old "hitting the nail on the head" saying (unless that expression has also undergone some remodeling I missed), getting the exact words to describe or explain what one is talking about.
Finding the best way to say something and doing so with ostensibly little effort is how I interpret "eloquence," something, that as a writer, I aspire to daily, a trait, among a host of traits, I want in a leader.
Eloquence doesn't automatically means someone will be a good leader, and I can imagine that ineloquence doesn't necessarily mean someone is a bad leader. Still I am reminded of what educational theorist Neil Postman said of "articulate language," in Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Postman said of "articulate language," which is concomitant to eloquence, that it "is our chief weapon against mental disturbance." He wrote that "through language we are able to formulate in relatively clear terms the origins and nature of our distress, and though language we may chart the route towards resolution and relief." Articulate language (aka eloquence) allows us to express what is wrong so we can begin to get help.
That is, perhaps, the rub for McCain. Obama's eloquence allows him to aptly explain what is wrong with this country at this moment in history, so together we might begin to address it. To suggest that eloquence is a bad thing tells me that we better watch what John McCain says; it could, after all, mean "almost anything."