Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1996 Issue

A Primer for Politics

By "Guido Veloce"

I prepared for the 1996 elections by listening to talk radio. The good part was knowing that the callers were on the telephone rather than out in public where they could do real damage. The bad parts, however, were quite ugly, and they inspired dark thoughts about the practice of politics, as well as inquiries about New Zealand's immigration policy.

In recent years the public, the media, and candidates for office seem to be playing politics in a different key. It has become the rhetorical equivalent of rap music: lots of anger, heavy on the beat, deeply personal, and disdainful of elegance and propriety. Maybe this style comes naturally to some people, but I couldn't help wondering how an ambitious young man or woman of gentler disposition could learn the viciousness and pettiness to excel at today's political game. A background in ice hockey would help, as would staying an extra three years in middle school. But as best I can tell, there is not much in print to give assistance, either on a theoretical or a practical level--no grand philosophical statements and precious few how-to manuals, just lots of self-serving memoirs from insiders and would-be insiders. There is no comparison between talk show host newsletters and the Federalist Papers.

What would be the right kind of political treatise to help prepare the next generation of leaders and talk show hosts to succeed in a post-civility world? The answer is probably "a cartoon strip," but I couldn't draw one. So I went back to the future for a model, to primers--those cheap, simple books our ancestors used to terrify children into learning the alphabet and being pious. They were filled with catchy aphorisms, often in dreadful poetry, and were very modern in their contempt for nuance. The most famous one, first published in the 1690s and in print for over a century, was the New-England Primer. It shaped impressionable minds with such rhymes as the ones for the letters A and Q:

With that inspirational example in mind, I have composed a primer for politics in the contemporary manner:

By repeating these easily memorized rhymes (preferably not while walking alone on city streets), any boy or girl can learn the essential techniques for talk radio, political speech writing, or running for public office. They should therefore be kept out of the hands of children.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.

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