The TV series The West Wing gave viewers the not unreasonable impression that great political leaders surround themselves with the best writers available. The hot-shots writing for President Jed Bartlet had honed their writing skills in the law, academia, management, journalism and even TV sitcoms.
Yet the evidence of our own eyes and ears suggests otherwise in the case of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. We want leaders whose words can inspire, but Rudd’s most important speeches as PM have often left us feeling flat and befuddled or, worse still, have attracted ridicule. Sadly, they seem to be the work of the man himself and not communication professionals.
Now, The Age reports that an essay by Rudd has been rejected by the American journal Foreign Affairs. The Age’s diplomatic editor Daniel Flitton cited “dense descriptions” (read gobbledygook) and “runs of clichés” in the essay and wondered whether these might have brought the PM undone.
It’s worth reading the full version of the paper obtained by The Age under Freedom of Information, to identify examples that point to systemic problems with the PM's writing.
Firstly, his prose style, and indeed his spoken remarks in interviews (remember “fair shake of the sauce bottle”?), suffer badly from mixed and murky metaphors. The essay is thick with them.
“...weaknesses in the institutions that underpin the globalization juggernaut”
A juggernaut is an unstoppable force and carries clear imagery of movement. But you don't underpin something that’s moving – in fact, "underpinning" is about securing a structure from beneath so that it doesn’t shift or collapse.
“A G20 structure... bridges the strategic and economic weight of the present and the future.”
A structure can't bridge a weight. A structure can bridge a gap, a gulf or a divide. Alternatively, if Rudd means to convey the idea of bridging the present and the future, then the sentence is not properly constructed.
“…the G20 should act as the lightning rod for global leadership: articulating principles, defining broad objectives and crafting the political consensus…”
Dictionaries define the metaphorical use of lightning rod in terms of a person (or organization) that attracts, or is a target of, criticism or controversy, especially when this diverts attention from other issues. This is clearly not Rudd’s intended meaning – there is no suggestion of attracting negative sentiment or diverting attention – so lightning rod is wrong.
“The largest gap in the current global system is the absence of a driving centre.”
Just what is a driving centre? It sounds like somewhere you might go to learn to drive. But if it’s supposed to be a mechanical metaphor, then what kind of machine has a driving centre? In the end, it’s not clear whether “driving” is meant in the sense of steering, accelerating and braking (as in “driving” a car or a train), or in the sense of propulsion (as in a “driving force”).
Taking issue with mixed metaphors isn’t just a matter of grammatical pedantry. Metaphors are supposed to enhance the communication of ideas by tapping into existing knowledge structures and imagery in the reader’s mind. But ill-chosen metaphors often obscure the writer’s intended meaning.
Kevin Rudd also has a recurring problem with sentences that head off in one direction but take a strange turn or lose their way.
“There is a yawning gap between the capacity of existing global institutions designed to deal with the challenges of the past, but insufficiently mandated, resourced or representative of emerging power realities to deal with the challenges of the future.”
This sentence teases the reader by setting out to describe a yawning gap, but the two sides of the gap or comparison introduced by the word between are never identified. Hence, a yawning gap remains in Rudd’s meaning.
“But this in turn misses the point because in China… the way in which China formally conceives of its role in the world is of practical importance in shaping the terms in which China might be profitably engaged in a dialogue about its future participation in the international order.”
Shortening this unfeasibly long sentence helps to reveal why it is problematic: the writer’s perspective moves from internal (in China…) to external and objective (…the way in which China…) and finally to a decidedly subjective and strategic view from the West (the terms in which China might be profitably engaged in a dialogue…). The shifting perspective makes the reader uncomfortable and obscures the writer’s point of view.
Not surprisingly, the Rudd essay contains numerous empty phrases that, rather than adding meaning or gravitas, simply make the writing less accessible. For example, Rudd’s vision for the G20 should be a crucial point of clarity in the essay. Instead, the vision is obscured by fog:
…an enabling agency capable of constructing the political momentum necessary to cut through layers of national and international bureaucracy that at present impede real progress on fundamental global reform that is now urgent.
Yes, there is more mixed metaphor (e.g. you can’t construct momentum) and awkward structure, but many of the words in this sentence are unnecessary or just poorly chosen. For example, a combination like an enabling agency capable is difficult and unpleasant to read.
Overall, this essay illustrates the kind of writing that Don Watson – former speechwriter for Labor Premier John Cain and Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating – railed against in his books Death Sentence and Weasel Words.
Dozens of weasels – and possibly some stoats and ferrets too – appear to have taken up residence in the PM’s word processor. Furthermore, the presence of spelling and punctuation errors in the manuscript suggests that it wasn’t even properly proof-read prior to submission.
That it reached a prestigious journal in this sorry state is embarrassing. It cries out for the assistance of a professional writer and editor.
But perhaps of greatest concern is the inference we must draw that there is no-one in the Prime Minister’s staff willing or able to confront him about these obvious shortcomings in his writing style.