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Leahy Does Homer


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - February 2nd, 2001

You may have heard Senator Patrick Leahy state that he will not vote to confirm Senator John Ashcroft as Attorney General:

"Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont will not move to block President George W. Bush's choice for attorney general on the Senate floor, his spokesman said, but feels Ashcroft is the wrong choice for the sensitive position. . . .

"In remarks prepared for delivery shortly on the Senate floor, Leahy said he respected Ashcroft. But he said as a standard bearer of conservative causes Ashcroft has held ``extreme'' positions on volatile social issues including abortion rights, gun violence, civil rights and the role of the courts." - 29 January 2001

Thanks to the Congressional Record, Rhetorix has the complete text of what Senator Leahy delivered on the Senate floor. His "remarks" consisted of 20,377 words-some forty-one single-spaced pages of prose.

How does a busy man like Senator Leahy find time enough to deliver such a long speech? Two practices assisted him in this effort, one is a modern parliamentary practice, the other is as old as Homer.

The first I will address briefly. Each senator and representative asks whomever is presiding over the House or Senate for the ability to "revise and extend my remarks." This permission allows speakers to insert the entire text of a speech into the Congressional Record whether it has been given in full or in part. Senator Leahy might have spoken for only two minutes (approximately 300 words), but-through the magic of revision and extension-those few hundred words can be fruitful and multiply into tens of thousands.

So how does a busy man like Senator Leahy find time enough to produce those tens of thousands of words? Homer pioneered the trick that makes it possible, the use of ready-made, formulaic repetition.

Homer's Iliad (the epic Greek poem about the fall of Troy, for those of you who were not properly educated) is rife with repetition. Every one mentioned has a personal descriptive phrase: glorious Hector, resourceful Odysseus, mighty Zeus, grey-eyed Athene, et al. An adjective here, an adjective there and the pages start to fill up.

Mass repetition also pads the Iliad. When Agamemnon lists the gifts used to convince Achilles to fight again, the list consists of thirty-five lines of poetry. A few pages later, when Odysseus again recites the list of gifts, he uses another thirty-five lines of poetry. Did Agamemnon truly need all that rhyming to list the gifts? No, and Odysseus did not need to repeat the list, but it does fill up time and paper. Remember that Homer made his living reciting this story; the longer he spun it out, the more money and meals that he earned.

The same types of padding occur in Senator Leahy's speech. Some of it is courtesy; the name "Ashcroft" is mentioned 257 times, each time with either "John" or "Senator" paired with it. This alone fills one full page.

Other repetitions echo the descriptive phrases of Homer. Senator Leahy uses "a time of political frustration and division" twice, "'chief' or 'top' law enforcement officer" three times, and "activist positions" four times. Responsibility and duty are not simple to him-they are "constitutional" responsibility and "constitutional" duty with the polysyllabic adjective used thirty-one times.

More bulk comes from the repetition of facts already known. The recent close election is recounted for us; we learn why presidents nominate and why senators grill a nominee; how many people comprise the American population (280 million, mentioned three times), and the budget for the Attorney General ($20 million, mentioned four times.) Senator Ashcroft's voting record is recited, as are his stands on issues, his actions as Missouri Attorney General, his conduct while he ran for public office-if anything Senator Ashcroft did was reported anywhere, Senator Leahy repeats it in his speech, whether we have heard it before or not.

The honorable senator from Vermont (a good Homeric formulation) could have spoken only the two paragraphs quoted above and conveyed his message. That he did not proves that we may not enjoy epic-length speeches, but the need to write them has not left humankind.

Take the following example of glorious, page-filling verbiage, which Senator Leahy gives us not once, but twice:

The Attorney General is not just a ceremonial position, and his or her duties are not just administrative or mechanical. Rather he or she controls a budget of over $20 billion and directs the activities of
more than 123,000 attorneys, investigators, Border Patrol agents, deputy marshals, correctional officers and other employees in over 2,700 Justice Department facilities around the country and in over 120 foreign cities. Specifically, the Attorney General supervises the selection and actions of the 93 United States Attorneys and their assistants and the U.S. Marshals Service and its offices in each State. The Attorney General supervises the FBI and its activities in this country and around the world, the INS, the DEA, the Bureau of Prisons and many other federal law enforcement components. The Attorney General evaluates judicial candidates and recommends judicial nominees to the President, advises on the constitutionality of bills and laws, determines when the Federal Government will sue an individual, business or local government, decides what statutes to defend in court and what arguments to make to the Supreme Court, other federal courts and State courts on behalf of the United States Government.

If only it were in dactylic hexameter-Homer would be so proud.

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"...how does a busy man like Senator Leahy find time enough to produce those tens of thousands of words? Homer pioneered the trick that makes it possible, the use of ready-made, formulaic repetition..."

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