Sound Bites

Yesterday and Today and Forever

In the year 1525, King Francis I of France led his troops into an untenable position in some fruit orchards outside Pavia in Italy and, in the subsequent battle, lost his whole army and was himself take prisoner. That night, in a long letter rambling through the tangled thickets of 16th century prose, a disorderly jumble of subordinate clauses and dangling participles, the captive king wrote to his mother to explain how the unthinkable had happened, and pour out all his grief and rage and humiliation and unconquerable determination to survive. By the time his mother, her royal counselors and her ladies-in-waiting had read it and commented on it and gossiped about it, the message had been boiled down to a single short sharp sentence: "All it is lost but honor."

It was recognized at the time, and has been recognized ever since, as perfect expression of the noble side of the brutal aristocratic culture that Francis personified, just as Leo Durocher's "Nice guys finish last" has been recognized as a perfect expression of the less noble side of the common-man culture of today.

Picayune scholars will go to any lengths to prove that deathless lapidary phrases like these were not actually said in their reputed form by their reputed authors. They have proved with footnotes that Richard III never said, "My kingdom for a horse" any more than Yogi Berra said, "It's deja vu all over again," But the pedants miss the point. These phrases were what these people meant to say, and would have said if they had more time and more verbal facility. You cannot expect a man like Francis I, covered with dust and sweat and blood, who has just seen his whole life crumble around him, his best friends blown to pieces or screaming in agony, to provide impromptu a polished phrase following the rhetorical rules fashionable at the moment. Somebody with more leisure or more learning may have had to touch it up, the phrase nevertheless belongs to the man who is said to have said it, and it is a part of living history.

Does it matter if Bishop Latimer, tied to the stake in Bloody Mary's England, said to his comrade in martyrdom, "Play the man, Master Ridley, we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out," or if he only said something like it and the words were refashioned by the Protestant propagandist John Foxe? Those were the words that were learned by heart and repeated and treasured by the people who turned England from a Catholic to a Protestant country in the years that followed. Honor, therefore, if not approval, has therefore been deservedly paid to Francis I and Durocher and Bishop Latimer and many others for having encapsulated or summarized whole eras, whole culture, whole mass movements in a few memorable words. Just so, in more recent times, honor and approval (or disapproval) have been paid to Harry Truman for summing up his conception of the Presidency and of his own character with the words, "The buck stops here." And to Walt Kelly's cartoon figure Pogo when he reduced the philosophical uncertainties about the degradation of the environment to the simple compound sentence, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Not too mention Nancy Reagan when she miniaturized the case for an individual-voluntaristic (as opposed to a macroeconomc-bureaucratic) approach to controlling substance abuse with three words, "Just say no;" or Margaret Thatcher when she signaled the possibility of ending the Cold War with the Evil Empire by wiring to Nancy's husband, "I think we can do business with Mr. Gorbachev;" or Calvin Coolidge, the most taciturn to our presidents, who concentrated thousand books of theology into his description of his favorite preacher's Sunday morning sermon on sin: "He was agin it,"

Honor will no longer be paid, however, if we listen to the TV commentators and newspaper editorialists who are daily shaping the minds of the new generation, Generation Z. According to these authorities, the old world of rational civilized discourse - in which Presidents wrote their own two-hour speeches in longhand, and the ideas of statesmen were exposed calmly and at length to the people -

a leaky craft that began taking water years ago, has now been sunk without a trace by a new form of torpedo called the sound bite.

Commentators and editorialists have taken the technical term from the radio and TV studios and turned it into a general term of abuse for any short statement they disagreed with - a more accurate term might be "unsound bite." It may be defined as device used to wicked people to reduce complex issues to simple formulas in order to sway public opinion. Only take away the adjective "wicked" and you have a definition of one of the oldest and most indispensable devices known to man.

In fact, it is hard to see how we could have made much progress without it. For civilized life, or any kind of human life, demands an unending series of decisions, choices of roads to be taken or not taken, turn left or right, make love or war, fish or cut bait. Ideally, Ideally you should take careful thought over an appropriate length of time before making any such decision, and sound bites by themselves are no substitute for thought. But it the world of things as they are, it is impossible to think without them. The time available for careful thought that takes in all the variables and weighs every pro against every con is limited. We could not cross a street, let alone fight a war or pass an appropriations bill without having a mass of ready-made formulas available to summarize previous experience.

These formulas may be right or wrong, wise or foolish. They may be fiercely partisan or they may express universal beliefs. Every nation that foes to war produces sound bites to prove that its cause is just, and if it wins the war it will go on repeating them. They may or may not pass the test of history as interpreted by future historians. Every one however accepts the principle popularized by a U. S. Senator named William Learned Marcy in 1952: "To the victor belong the spoils." Similarly, politicians and theologians can debate the merits and demerits of the capitalist system from here to doomsday, but the system runs on, merrily or not, following the principle reduced by Adam Smith to a commonsense sound bite: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

You could spend years trying to achieve a precise calculation of the relative merits of the two candidates in the forthcoming presidential election. Unless you are the kind of person who can analyze a shelf-ful of books of history and economics and stacks of newspaper files and congressional committee hearings, your decision will be heavily influenced, if not entirely determined, by sound bites you have picked up from your favorite anchorpersons, or talkshow hosts, or highschool civics classes, or have heard in coffee shops or bars, or from tales your mother taught you.

This was as true when America was full of wise founding fathers as it is today, when it is full of talking heads. Political speeches were longer in those days, and the voters may have vociferously enjoyed them, but that does not mean they were listening in the sense of following a closely reasoned argument. If audiences came away with anything at all more or less permanently fixed to their minds, it was a sound bite, often the one that brought the speech to a triumphant close: Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death"; Daniel Webster's "Liberty and Union, now and forever, and one and inseparable"; Abraham Lincoln's "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth"; William Jennings Bryan's "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

It has been the same in the 20th century. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; "Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your country"; "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!" Structurally these famous phrases that once stirred multitudes are no different from successful advertising slogans - from "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" to "just do it!" - that have also stirred multitudes in their own way. They are short, they are forceful, they are resonant. If not, they do not linger in the memory of the people, they do not survive.

Julius Caesar understood this principle when, after defeating king Pharnaces II of Phrygia in what is now Turkey in 47 BC, he sent back to the Roman Senate and People not an orderly exposition of his strategy and tactics and booty but a three-word sound-bite, Veni, vidi, vinci, I came, I saw, I conquered, to convince them that he was a man who could get things done expeditiously with maximum panache and minimum cost, just the man they need to fill the vacant post of dictator.

Among the first sound bites in the historical record, and which most of us learn at an early age today, are the Ten Commandments. If Moses had come down from Sinai with a tablet reading, "Violent suppression by a blunt or sharp instrument or withholding of nourishment of another human being is hereby prohibited except under circumstances specified hereunder in sections 76(c) to 548 (d) of the penal code or as may hereinafter amended by a two-thirds vote of the Sanhedrin operating under the bylaws of the tribe of Ephraim or the Third Lateran Council of the Holy and Apostolic Roman Catholic Church or such other body as may be formed in accordance with the specifications in Paragraph 327 infra," he would have lost his audience in short order. Instead, his table said, "Thou shalt not kill." and most of us ever since have accepted it as an overriding law of our lives, though we are aware that there are enough exceptions and interpretations and clarifications to fill whole libraries with the squabblings of theologians and lawyers. (Only two chapters on in the Book of Exodus, we are told not to suffer a witch to live.)

The fate of sitting presidents and ancient regimes may be determined by which of competing sets of sound-bites gets closer to the bone of the people. Not necessarily to their rational faculties. The voters of the young American people who in 1840 voted with their feet to the rhythm of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" and ran Martin Van Buren ("Van Van is a used-up man") out of the White House had only the vaguest idea of what they were getting in his place. The Russian peasant who rallied around Lenin's sound-bite, "Peace, land, bread," in1917 did not foresee that he was heading them toward years of civil war and the confiscation of all their land. The grandchildren of the Louisiana voters of the 1930's who kept electing Huey Long on his promise to make "Every Man a King" are still waiting for their crowns. A political outsider, the late Professor Timothy Leary had only to leer at the forlorn teenagers of California and urge them to "Turn on, tune in, drop out" and it was déja vu all over again.

Sound bites, like any other form of human experience, must have values attached to them, and as with most other forms of human experience, the values are up for grabs. "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer," which helped sweep Adolf Hitler into power in Germany in 1933, is in today's world everyone's idea of a repulsive and destructive sound bite. If Hitler had won his war, it would have been carved on the world's monuments and printed on its currency.

Woodrow Wilson won re-election to the Presidency of the United States by a very narrow margin in 1916, probably owing to the success of a single sound bite, "He kept us out of the war," five months before he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Whether his re-election was a good thing or a bad thing for America, or whether it made any difference at all, are questions historians will be debating with decreasing vigor for decades.

Punchy, effective sound bites can come in any form you want. They can even be long (within reason). Take, for example, the unforgettable 35-word sentence, ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness") in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, an otherwise mostly unremembered document. Mostly of course they have been quite short, and have always necessarily been so, for the attention span of human beings is limited, though they are rarely as short as General McAuliffe's reply to the demand for surrender of his troops at Bastogne in 1945 ("Nuts!") or the operating instructions of Thomas J. Watson to his employees at IBM ("THINK").

Just as important as what is said in a sound bite is when it is said. , Later he tried another one, after being relieved of his command in Korea in 1951: "in war there is no substitute for victory." But since that war ended in a draw, the phrase has gone into the old curiosity shop of history, along with "Disperse ye rebels," shouted to the minutemen at Lexington in 1776, "Hang the Kaiser" (a rallying cry in the First World War) and "Mother of all battles," (fight talk from Saddam Hussein in 1991).

In this field as in so many others, quantity is no substitute for quality. Today there may be more sound bites than were ever before dreamed of hovering through the fog of TV and the Internet, but when did you last hear one that could move a mountain or even win an election? Past ages have produced a rich garland of colorful sound bites that changed the world and echoed down the years - (William Randolph Hearst o artist Frederic Remington in Cuba in 1898: "you furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war: Louis XIV to his parliament and the world in general: "L'état c'est moi:" the cool Yankee, wise in the unreliable ways of 18th-century muskets, to the recruits at Bunker Hill: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes". But the recent record is one of almost unrelieved dreariness. Look through all the files of the newsmagazine and spin doctors and media consultants of the past score of years, and you will come up with nothing more memorable than George H. W Bush's appeal in 1988 to "Read my lips. No new taxes," which of course blew up in his face in 1992 when the Democratic strategist James Carville fired back into the whites of his eyes with his war-room sound-bite: "The Economy, Stupid."

If this is the best that our generation can do, what are our grandchildren and future historians, going to think of? It is true that such a poverty of invention is not necessarily fatal to the republic. The America of the late 19th century, held up to us as a model in some of the unsoundest sound-bites of modern politicians, was a land faced with racial and sectional enmities, unbridled immigration, greed, rape of the environment, growing disparity between rich and poor, rampant criminality, rampant homelessness. The statesmen who tried to solve these problems won their elections more often than not by using a set of undistinguished and by now completely forgotten sound bites known collectively as "Waving the Bloody Shirt," the message of which was a claim to represent the heroes of the Civil War and an implication that the opposing candidate was a traitorous rebel at heart. Somehow the country survived, and perhaps we will, too.

Still, we are more prosperous, better educated and better informed than our great-grandparents were. Is it not time for the critics and commentators to stop whining and wailing about the nefariousness of sound bites, and devote their considerable energies to raising the level of public discourse by turning out a few good sound bites of their own? It would require some literary talent and a good sense of timing. But that has been the say of sound bites since the day God said, "Let there be light."