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Alvin Greene's catechism of political cliche

By Alexandra Petri

The Irish writer Brian O’Nolan said that a cliché “is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage… A sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language.”

Democratic South Carolina Senate candidate Alvin Greene has some seriously mortified language, and the commentary it offers on political speech is a bit unnerving.

What is most startling about Greene is not the more bizarre elements of his campaign but how weirdly normal it all is. He has simply done all the things you would do if you believed everything people said in stump speeches. In order to be a senator, all you need to do is go talk to some people called “constituents” and give a speech about moving our country into the 21st century and creating something called “jobs.” Constituents, whoever they are, seem to like this idea. The more jobs, the better. Also, they like things such as “moving forward” and “education” and “entitlement reform,” if you can keep the phrases straight and not make an idiot of yourself talking about “moving reform” and “entitlement education.” Although it makes about as much sense.

Usually, we ignore the fact that every candidate uses an identical script because we have confidence in their abilities to translate phrases such as “create new jobs” and “fix American youth” into action. Sure, everyone promises to commit to education, lower (or at least not raise) taxes, and swaddle you in blankets of government care. But usually, if you look hard enough on their websites, they have plans to do this.

So when someone like Greene, the surprise candidate with no job, no experience and no discernible plan, dons the emperor's new clothing of political speech, rambling about "jobs" and "education" and "justice," we have to step back and reevaluate the language itself. It would be easier if he said silly things such as, “If you support Green(e) initiatives, I’m the best possible candidate!” or “South Carolina needs to go Greene!” or made more references to creating action figures of himself as a jobs initiative. But instead of doing and saying the absurd things we might hope, he has actually stuck, more or less, to the script.

What is the script?

More than five decades ago, O’Nolan (under the pseudonym Myles Na Gopaleen) offered a “Catechism of Cliché.” Here are a few of his examples:

What does it behoove us to proclaim?
Our faith.

In what does it behoove us to proclaim our faith?

From what vertiginous eyrie does it behoove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
From the house-tops.

At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
Now, more than ever.

These ran more than 50 years ago. But judging from Alvin Greene’s most recent speech, not much has changed. His remarks on Sunday form their own catechism of today’s political cliché.

Where do America and South Carolina need to get?
Alvin Greene: Back to work.

This campaign is about moving America and South Carolina in what direction?
Alvin Greene: My campaign is about…moving South Carolina and America forward.

What can South Carolina not afford?
Alvin Greene: South Carolina cannot afford six more years of my opponent.

What is your opponent keeping?
Alvin Greene: This country hostage.

When is the time to implement alternative forms of energy such as solar, wind and methane?
Alvin Greene: Now is the time to implement alternative forms of energy such as solar, wind and methane.

What kind of jobs will this effort create?
Alvin Greene: This effort will create green jobs.

What kind of education do we need?
Alvin Greene: We need better education.

For whom do we need better education?
Alvin Greene: For our children.

Who needs to take a more active role in their children’s education?
Alvin Greene: Parents.

Especially parents of whom?
Alvin Greene: Especially parents of under-performing children.

Instead of doing less for our education, what ought we to be doing?
Alvin Greene: Instead of doing less for our education, we ought to be doing more.

And, finally, Who is the best candidate in the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina?
Alvin Greene: I’m the best candidate in the US Senate race here in South Carolina.

Not reassured? Listen to what Jim DeMint, the Republican incumbent, has to say on his website.

What is the true strength of America?
Jim DeMint: Strong families are the true strength of America.

I'm feeling a little mortified myself.

By Alexandra Petri  | July 19, 2010; 1:13 PM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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Next: Refudiate: Sarah Palin's new political language


Sounds an awful lot like Barack Obama in 2008.

That is meant to say more about Mr. Obama as president than Mr. Greene as candidate.

Posted by: spamblocker | July 19, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

He doesn't sound convincing because there is no there there.

Just because Greene says the right words doesn't mean that he can convince anyone.

People are not asking the right questions to him - or any candidate for that matter.

Does he have the knowledge and experience to back up what he says? Can he understand the language behind the legislative bills that will be presented to him in office? Will he be able to hire the right people to support and do the jobs that are necessary to get the job done? Does he have or can he make and develop the necessary connections (as well as understand how they work) in order to accomplish what he says he wants to do?

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 19, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

We don't really need to discuss Greene's candidacy. We just need to agree to waste no time thinking about it. As Nancy Reagan said: Just say no.

Posted by: SenecaSC | July 19, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

The most striking thing about Alvin Greene from the beginning is he clearly has enormous self-regard and nominal ability. Unfortunately, this is true of too many Americans. Research shows millions believe they are much more capable than they are. People like those saying the government had better keep its filthy hands off their Medicare at those town hall meetings last summer are all too common. Greene is an example of a person getting so out of touch with the reality of his situation that it may have cost him his life sayings of just $10,000.

Posted by: query0 | July 19, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Mr, Greene was refering about the plentiful supply of methane that is comming out ouf congress and the white house this days. Ofcourse he added to the supply of methane himself.

Posted by: greenstheman | July 19, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I love South Carolina!!
Who's got the boiled peanuts??

Posted by: slatt321 | July 19, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

There is exactly as much substance behind his empty cliches as there are behind Sarah Palin's vapidly repeated lines.

Hardly surprising, since they are both creations of the GOP, Greene's artificially minted (D) notwithstanding.

Posted by: B2O2 | July 19, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I'd love to see Alvin go all the way. He'd be a perfect addition to the Senate. No ideas and no plan. He'll fit right in.

Posted by: bandcyuk | July 19, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Great speech writer can't stop Greene from going to jail for his felony charge. Yes Greene's words on education while he showed a college student porn on the computer then asked her to a room for sex. You bet that's one of the smartest candidates South Carolina has. DeMint's patsy will make sure DeMint wins by default. All the right ways wont stop Greene from going jail. Will the voters ask the Judge to let Greene serve weekends in jail while serving as Senator to South Carolina. Well Gov. Sanford got a slap on the hand for leaving the State unprotected and using the taxpayers money for his soulmate visits.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | July 19, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

I hope he gets elected. Both parties deserve him.

I do not refudiate this message.

Posted by: PennyWisetheClown | July 19, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

The bottom line is Alvin Greene would make a better Senator than DeMint.

It is scary - the political system has produced a horrible cast of characters over the years.

YOU are afraid to put a guy like Greene in office - it can't be worse than what we have now.


Posted by: YouCanPostThis | July 19, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

You just can't make this stuff up!

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 20, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Somebody gave a mildly developmentally delayed man the money to file to run for Senate. It may have been a practical joke, or a serious dirty trick, but it's not a reason to cut Mr. Greene to pieces, as if he were a real candidate.

Posted by: bettenoir | July 20, 2010 12:42 AM | Report abuse

not to mention Greene kept almost losing his place in the script in order to make the mandatory repeated eye contact.

Posted by: daphne5 | July 20, 2010 1:01 AM | Report abuse

I don't see much difference between Demint and Greene! Why not give Greene a try and dump the incumbent Demint who has done nothing to further our country?

Posted by: ginger470132 | July 20, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

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