After hearing so many people over recent years tout the virtues of storytelling, I’ve been half expecting a late night infomercial to show how storytelling can cure baldness.
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened (yet).
Still, the powers of storytelling continue to surface in unexpected places. The superb columnist for the New York Times, Frank Bruni, called out storytelling as the Republican’s strategy for the impeachment proceedings in a column last week.
It wasn’t a compliment.
Bruni’s acerbic wit lifts this column to the keeper category. He treats language like dough to be pounded and twisted and cajoled into unexpected forms.
Here’s a breakdown of a chunk of the column. You’ll need to click Devin Nunes Is Danielle Steel for the rest.
I came to your house with a gun. At least imagine I did. I tied you to a chair, took a step back and repeatedly fired. But my arm twitched; every bullet missed. Meanwhile, you slipped your knots and fled.
The opening salvo is pure genius. The short sentences and word choice sound almost Hemingway-like.
By the reasoning of Representative Jim Jordan, I did absolutely nothing wrong.
You’re alive! Not a drop of blood on you! An unconsummated crime is no crime at all, or so Jordan, one of the Republican Party’s more rococo philosophers, argued on Wednesday in defense of President Trump. Ukraine got its military aid; Trump did not get his investigation of the Bidens. To Jordan, that’s proof of innocence.
Hyperbole at its best. Effective use of the exclamation point. I did have to look up “rococo.”
To a normal person, that’s proof of incompetence, which doesn’t exonerate the president, but should definitely reassure us. Trump’s an autocrat all right, but the silver lining is that he’s an inept one. All strongmen should be this weak.
I’ve talked about levity being the killer app in non-fiction writing as to keep the bar at a reasonable height. Bruni doesn’t need such concessions. The man is funny.
And all of us should have the mental limberness and ethical elasticity that Jordan and his troupe possess. They’re the Cirque du Soleil of c’est la vie. I’ve never seen anything like the Republican effort to defend Trump, which charts the frontiers of creativity, explores the outer limits of audacity, mutates like the monsters in the “Alien” movies and restores my faith in American ingenuity.
What a perfect phrase, “ethical elasticity.” And that sentence “I’ve never seen anything like the Republican effort to defend Trump …” sounds like a 16-wheeler rumbling down the interstate out of control, but course correcting at the last moment with the biting “restores my faith in American ingenuity.”
My faith in Washington, too. I long feared that politics had stopped attracting the country’s top talent, but some of our finest storytellers are working in the United States Capitol. John Grisham has nothing on Jordan. Danielle Steel can’t hold a candle to Devin Nunes.
And now the nod to the wonders of storytelling.
Nunes was among the first Republicans to pipe up on Day 1 of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings, held by the House Intelligence Committee, and it wasn’t just his narrative ambition that mesmerized me. It was his bold descent into his thesaurus, a sort of semantic spelunking.
The word choice and alliteration amuses and disturbs at the same time, “his bold descent into his thesaurus, a sort of semantic spelunking.”
The hearings, he said, marked the “pitiful finale” and “spectacular implosion” of the “Russia hoax.” They amounted to a “scorched-earth war against President Trump” that was “horrifically one-sided” and “preposterous.” This “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” had already involved a “closed-door audition process in a cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol.” Cultlike, no less! That’s a more fitting description of Republicans’ obeisance to the president and laundering of his wrongdoing, but then one hallmark of Trump and his sycophants is the projection of their own flaws onto their adversaries.
Bruni offers a form of word judo, turning Nunes’ adjectives and adverbs against him.
Nunes’s best bit on Wednesday and then again on Friday was his portrayal of Trump’s Democratic detractors as amateur pornographers intent on finding nude pictures of the president. I’m fairly confident that no one is intent on finding nude photographs of the president.
Understatement creates another humorous flourish.
But at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump himself tweeted one out. Would that be any crazier than what he did on Friday, as Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, testified?
There she was, a pained, stoic State Department amalgam of Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae, and Trump used his Twitter account to call her an international wrecking ball, single-handedly responsible for the mess that is Mogadishu. (One of her posts before Ukraine was Somalia.)
This accomplished nothing in the way of silencing her but raised the prospect of witness intimidation being added to any articles of impeachment. Clearly, the Republican response to this impeachment inquiry isn’t some elegant strategy. It’s an epic snit.
Epic snits are never good.
Its leitmotif is hypocrisy. Nunes opened Friday’s hearing by lamenting all the important government business that was on hold because Democrats preferred to torture Trump. I somehow missed his pleas that lawmakers keep their eyes on the ball and devote themselves to practical problem-solving when the president stirred up one culture war after another just to change the topic of a given news cycle or hear a rally audience’s roar. But along comes the impeachment inquiry, and suddenly House Republicans are stymied stewards of levelheaded government.
Again, understatement leads the way, “… and suddenly House Republicans are stymied stewards of levelheaded government.”
They’re dismissing Wednesday’s and Friday’s hearings, held in public, as pure theater. But they complained about the closed-door testimony beforehand. They’re shrugging off the accounts of William Taylor, George Kent and others as hearsay. But the White House has decreed that such firsthand witnesses as Mick Mulvaney not cooperate.
One moment, Mulvaney publicly acknowledges the shakedown of Ukraine’s president, insists that it’s how foreign policy is done and tells the media to “get over it.” The next, he tells the media that they’re reprehensible fabulists for reporting exactly what he said. One moment, Republicans completely ignore Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call and claim that there’s no direct evidence of his bullying and — yes, Nancy Pelosi is right — his bribery. The next, they acknowledge the call, sigh over Trump’s behavior but say that it’s hardly impeachable.
In wrapping up this chunk of the column, there’s a certain you-can’t-make-this-sh**t-up quality to the storytelling.
All work places come with their own lexicons.
One aspect that I especially admire about Bruni’s writing is his ability to find words that not only sit outside the political lexicon, but are often downright incongruent.
High-impact words are used often but it doesn’t mean that the listeners are persuaded. Look at what journalists say about Mr Trump below. Listeners will always look, listen, evaluate then form their own opinions.
Brian Williams, MSNBC anchor: For our live coverage of the blowtorch testimony this morning from Gordon Sondland — [he] turns out to be the guy that has offered the most stunning testimony.
Ari Melber, MSNBC anchor: In addition to that and the bombshells we’ve heard about, this was an IED from Mr. Sondland.
Nicolle Wallace, MSNBC anchor: As you said, taking a blowtorch to even the defense Donald Trump has offered — we don’t say this very often anymore, because it’s rarely true, but I think today changed everything.
I see a little daylight between the clichéd hyperbole of the MSNBC accounts and the more nuanced weavings of Mr. Bruni that this story samples from.
I’m in your camp.
I may not understand American storytelling as well as you do but aren’t good stories supposed to be nuanced?
The Democratic story is that impeachment is a step taken with humility and love for America. It is a nuanced story too, but it is up to the audience to make their own evaluation when faced with these competing stories.
Pelosi had taken the rhetorical high road, announcing the next steps on impeachment “with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders and a heart full of love for America.”