An election about law and order

Language is an essential component of law.  No language no law at least not in a democracy.  To use language respectfully, accurately and skillfully requires clear thinking, thoughtfulness and humility.  Respect for law requires respect for language, respect for the meaning and power of words.  We think how a person uses language can offer an insight into the speaker’s or writer’s ability and willingness to understand and to respect law.  

We think there is a clear difference between how the Obama and McCain campaigns use language.  We think the Obama campaign has shown a consistently respectful, skillful and accurate use of language.  The McCain campaign has not.  The Obama campaign has consistently displayed clear thinking, thoughtfulness and humility.  The McCain campaign has not.  The McCain campaign has used words like terrorist, socialist and liar.  It has not repudiated calls for violence or false claims of sexual assault made by McCain – Palin supporters.  The McCain campaign has treated language in the same way that gangs use guns.

The first victim of the McCain’s campaign disrespectful and dishonest use of language was John McCain.  His “Straight Talk Express” is a dim memory.  His reputation as a Maverick who spoke truth to power is gone. His campaign took the “Straight Talk Express” off the road and replaced the admirable Maverick with a defiant, impulsive, inconsistent, disorganized, angry and determined fighter.  With the last eight years of Republican rule in mind and because of the McCain campaign’s wild and irresponsible use of language it is impossible to know what the Republican party stands for just as it is impossible to know what, how or even whether John McCain is currently thinking for himself rather than merely choosing between urgent calls for action.  He is a proven fighter.  He is not a proven thinker or a proven leader capable of using language responsibly to lead responsibly. (If the McCain campaign is a reflection of John McCain’s leadership skills, there is no reason to think he could lead the country and there are good reasons to believe he could not.) He has made plain his willingness and ability to fight and to act but that willingness and ability alone are of no comfort.  On the contrary, they are cause for great concern.

Over the long course of the campaign Obama and his campaign have respected language, respected the political process and most importantly respected citizens, all citizens.  Obama and his campaign have invited citizens to think about the campaign’s message, have expressed that message clearly and consistently precisely so that citizens can understand it and think about it and make an intelligent decision on the merits.  By comparison the McCain campaign has tried, using language without regard to honesty or meaning, to motivate citizens to react, not to think but to react, to follow McCain’s example.  The approach of the McCain campaign may yet prove successful.  It is easier to be angry, fearful and certain than it is to listen and to think things through and think for oneself.  In a sense this election is the most important test of the nation’s ability and willingness to think things through, to think beyond the slogans and charges and hype, to think about the election and its meaning in a way different from the ways urged by pundits, headlines and campaign ads.  We think that at this time in the nation’s history there is something more important than political ideology and policy positions.  We think the nation needs a president who is smart, thoughtful and articulate, a leader who has the ability and willingness to trust citizens enough to talk directly to them, to involve the American people in the process of governing to an extent unheard of – unimagined – in recent history.  We think it is important to have a president who has the ability, if necessary, to speak to the American people bypassing Congress if Congress continues to be characterized by the partisan, divisive, short-sighted and selfish exercise of power that has characterized the last eight years.

In our view the McCain campaign has shown too little respect for language and has been characterized by disorder. To the extent that use of language is a measure of respect for law and order, the presidential campaign is an election about law and order.  For us the choice on November 4th is clear.

George F. Will, Q.C.

Q.C. stands for Queen’s Counsel.  For reasons I explain in an earlier post entitled “Diane Rehm, Q.C.,” the Q.C. designation is my way of saying that I greatly admire the manner and the excellence with which a person uses language and clarity of thought to express, often forcefully but always civilly, ideas, arguments and opinions. In my book, George Will is among the very best of the “Queen’s Counsels.”

One way for lawyers (or any one else) to improve their writing is to read on a regular basis something, anything really, that George Will has written.  You can find one of Will’s Washington Post op ed pieces here . I chose it because it is about two recent Supreme Court rulings, John McCain’s reaction to one of them, and about the Presidential campaign.

I happen to enjoy Will’s style.  Reading something he’s written is a pleasurable experience for me even if I don’t agree with him. One of the reasons I enjoy his columns is because I can always understand what he’s written.  I don’t have to guess.  I don’t have read and re-read just to get to first base.  The process of going from words to meaning is smooth, frictionless.  I can spend my time thinking about his ideas and arguments instead of trying to cope with the sound of grinding gears and the smell of something that has overheated. There is a certain joy in the cadence of his writing.

The way George Will writes reminds me of something Tony Fitzgerald once told a group of new associates.  Tony Fitzgerald is a great lawyer, a lawyer’s lawyer.  A graduate of Yale College and the Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar at Columbia Law School, Fitzgerald is a partner in the litigation department of Carmody & Torrance.  About writing a brief he said, “If you don’t have the judge’s attention by the end of the first page, you’ve lost him.”  Keeping that advice in mind focuses one’s attention.  No pleasantries.  No warm-ups.  Get to the point.  What’s the issue? Why should the judge decide in your favor? Make the judge want to read on. Make sense. Don’t use filler.  Make every word count. 

Writing a column is very different from writing a brief.  A columnist has greater freedom and independence than an advocate does in the context of a lawsuit.  But the columnist and the trial lawyer have this in common:  skillful use of language, clarity and economy of expression matter every bit a much as substance. To be successful both the columnist and brief writer must make their ideas easily accessible to the reader.  

George Will is not a lawyer.  He could, I think, have been a great lawyer but the price for him would have been too high, loss of independence.  My guess is that Will is at his best and that he feels most comfortable when he speaks for himself.  It’s not entirely clear to me that he could do otherwise.

Maybe for today, in this tiny, insignificant space Will has the best of both worlds: here he is thought of as both columnist and Queen’s Counsel, George Will, Q.C.