GOP debates in eyes of Jonathan Swift

David Shribman

The writer Jonathan Swift died 270 years ago this fall and thus is not around to comment on the 2016 election. More’s the pity.

That’s because Swift was keenly interested in politics. Indeed, his writings were laced with political commentary, aimed with particular savagery against the ruling English aristocracy, especially the Whigs; even today when we comment on the smallness of our political figures we speak of Lilliputians, who sprung to life from the pages of his 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels.”

And breathes there a contemporary political satirist as piercing as Swift in “A Modest Proposal,” his 1729 tract that suggested the poor of Ireland raise money by selling their children to be eaten by the rich of England?

Swift’s “Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation,” published in 1713, offers us a surprisingly useful guide to our own political scene. For in that essay he argues that “the truest way to understand conversation is to know the faults and errors to which it is subject, and from thence every man to form maxims to himself whereby it may be regulated.”

In truth, the most recent GOP debate was far more civilized, far more positive and far more useful to voters than were the previous three. That is in part because the candidates, besides retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who said his strategy for battling ISIS was to “make them look like losers,” generally obeyed this injunction from Swift:

One of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish we had rather left unsaid.

Nor did the commentators allow the proceedings to run afoul of this conviction of Swift:

“Nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest.”

Even so, there were a number of infractions of the Swift rules. Here are a few excerpts from Swift selected for their peculiarly apt commentary on the 2016 presidential campaign and, especially, on the Milwaukee debate:

“Another general fault in conversation is, that of those who affect to talk of themselves: Some, without any ceremony, will run over the history of their lives; (and) will enumerate the hardships and injustice they have suffered.”

Ordinarily this critique would be aimed directly at the heart of Carson, but in fact his biography is at the heart of his campaign appeal. At this session, Carson emphasized the story of his life, which was the leitmotif of his three earlier appearances. After four debates, it is time to focus on the life of Americans rather than the story lines of the candidates. That’s a lesson that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio might heed as well.

“It now passeth for raillery to run a man down in discourse, to put him out of countenance, and make him ridiculous, sometimes to expose the defects of his person or understanding; on all which occasions he is obliged not to be angry, to avoid the imputation of not being able to take a jest.”

The billionaire Donald Trump is peculiarly vulnerable to this critique; he knows that his blunt commentary has been the shiny currency of his campaign. But his I-don’t-have-to-listen-to-the-likes-of-you dismissal of Kasich lacked chivalry and exposed Trump as a bully. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who otherwise had a strong performance last week, might be singled out for characterizing Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky as a “committed isolationist.” That prompted a “Marco, Marco” reaction from Paul.

“There are some men excellent at telling a story … however, it is subject to two unavoidable defects: frequent repetition, and being soon exhausted; so that whoever valueth this gift in himself, hath need of a good memory, and ought frequently to shift his company, that he may not discover the weakness of his fund.”

Here again Kasich should consult his inner Swift. In every debate he has told the television audience, in almost identical language, about his economic successes in Ohio and his experience of “stepping on every toe” in Washington as chairman of the House Budget Committee. These are legitimate accomplishments. But a debate is not a stump speech, repeated day after day in community centers, fraternal lodges and veterans’ halls.

This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society, further than in parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour.

Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina is the Republicans’ answer to this plaint. In her appearances in Milwaukee, Fiorina showed broad mastery of the issues and a forceful mien, especially on foreign policy, that might make her the most formidable debating rival of Hillary Rodham Clinton, if only she could wrestle the nomination away from the men with whom she shared the stage.

Moreover, Fiorina’s portrayal of Obamacare as the captive of “crony capitalism” and of big pharmaceutical and insurance companies was an especially deft move, displaying her ability to use customary Democratic anti-business rhetoric in a Republican debate to attack a policy closely identified with Democrats, especially Clinton.

“There are some people, whose good manners will not suffer them to interrupt you; but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because they have started something in their own thoughts which they long to be delivered of.”

They’re all guilty.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh.