Regardless (not irregardless, never irregardless) of what anyone thinks of Trump, Comey or anyone else connected with the increasingly major scandal that is unfolding, this week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings had one clear winner. The English language.
To be frank, I don’t have a problem with the president using tweets as his preferred method of communication, if—and it’s a big if—he could be complete and concise in 144 characters per tweet. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, with their superior communication skills, could have done so most effectively. Even George W. Bush, not exactly known for his eloquence, could have done it, too, with the help of his crack communications team.
Trump doesn’t have that skill, regardless (there that word is again) of those who assert that he’s a great communicator. He’s not. In tweet and in person, his expressed thoughts are rarely complete or concise. The rare exception: “No. No. Next question.” And that, in response to a reporter asking about whether he had “urged” James Comey to “back down the investigation into Michael Flynn” may come back to haunt the president. Particularly following Comey’s testimony under oath.
But, really, that’s not what I want to talk about. One of the joys (and curses) of being an English major is one’s internal critique of misused language, particularly by people who ought to know better. Granted, I was reared (not raised) behind Texas’ pine curtain, so I’m sure to let out with a colloquialism from time to time that might raise an eyebrow from outside that region.
So two days of big time Senate hearings had all that training on high alert. (And I was trained by the best—those of you who went to school with me know the teachers and professors I’m talking about.) And it was a wonderful respite from the usual imprecise and decidedly not concise language to which we have become accustomed.
On Wednesday, we had a wonderful exchange between Senator Angus King and NSA Chief Rogers in which King jumped right in and called out that what Rogers’ “feel[s]isn’t the answer,” followed by a back-up punch stating that “I do mean it in a contentious way.” Wow, grown-ups using language in a measured way to make assertive, even aggressive, points. Good job!
And then the same committee questioning fired FBI director James Comey, where the thoughtful use of English was on complete display (with one notable exception from John McCain). This talent was displayed by members (mostly lawyers—that other group of language parsers) from both parties. Senator James Risch, a Republican, worked the language magic on the word “hope,” which is not an order or a directive unless taken in context. Quite effective, until Senator Kamala Harris twisted it back with a cute anecdote that “hope” is “not the most operative word at the moment” when a robber with a gun to your head says he “hope[s]you will give [him]your wallet.” Good stuff.
But the best of the lot was the follow-up question on the “hope” bit by, again Senator King, to which Comey replied, “It rings in my ear as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” While “getting medieval” from Pulp Fiction has a particular urban meaning, Comey and King got medieval in the true sense of the word. When Comey tossed out a quote attributed to Henry II with Senator King responding by dating the quote exactly to December 29, 1170—well, that means we still live in a democracy where intelligent discourse can be peppered with references both arcane and archaic. And that warms my heart.
Considering that Trump may lack discourse (in the archaic sense of that word), he may need to raise the level of his game if he’s going to compete with folks who can throw down 12th Century quotes. Granted, there was a certain “showboat” or “showoff” quality to that reference. But it beats “I know words…I have got the best words” any day of the week.
So, Donald, ramp it up. Otherwise, somebody may get medieval on you.