In 2010, we bestowed our first annual Freshest Rhetoric of the Year award on then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, for their declarations in February of that year that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy should be repealed. At the time, the statements were deemed by many to be both groundbreaking and courageous. Now, little more than two years later–with the walls of discrimination against the LGBT community crumbling, and with state after state enacting legislation legalizing same-sex marriage–the declarations from Gates and Mullen have proven to be not merely bold, but prescient.
Last year, our second annual Freshest Rhetoric of the Year award went to Elizabeth Warren, for her exhortation, in a videotaped living room appearance in Andover, Massachusetts, that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on their own.” The video of Warren explaining America’s “underlying social contract” went viral, the essence of her message (we all built, and continue to build, this country together) became a cause, and now, little more than a year later, Elizabeth Warren awaits her swearing-in as United States Senator Warren.
The Gates-Mullen message in 2010 pertained to gender equality. The Warren message of 2011 pertained to economic fairness. Both messages, though–when viewed from a broader perspective–had a common, overarching theme, which was this: America works best when we all work together.
This theme–inclusion over exclusion, community over selfishness–was tested explicitly during this presidential election year, with Mitt Romney, on the one hand, effectively writing off 47% of the electorate as moochers, and Barack Obama, on the other hand, arguing that the well-off should do more to contribute to the community as a whole. While the contrast was stark, the competing messages, at times, grew muddled–until that evening in August, when the man from a place called Hope, Arkansas, took to the podium at the Democratic National Convention.
Anyone who heard Bill Clinton’s speech that night can attest to the power, the impact, and the effectiveness of his message. For three-quarters of an hour, in an address that was more prose than poetry, more conversation than oratory, the former President slayed myth with facts, theory with numbers, and fantasy with reality. But while Clinton’s speech, in its entirety, was riveting, one particular passage not only encapsulated his message, it also summarized the overarching theme of community common to the Gates-Mullen comments of 2010 and the Warren remarks of 2011. It was this:
We think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share prosperity. You see, we believe that “we’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “you’re on your own.”
“We’re all in this together” versus “You’re on your own.” Despite the surfeit of pundits, prognosticators, consultants, and candidates, no one better summarized what Campaign 2012 was all about. For the way in which it cut through the mumbo-jumbo, for the way in which it described the essence of the electoral contest simply and understandably, and for the way in which it undoubtedly influenced people on how to vote, Bill Clinton’s pithy phrasing was clearly the Freshest Rhetoric of 2012.
[From 2011: The Freshest Rhetoric of 2011]
[From 2010: The Freshest Rhetoric of 2010]