For my first post in the Montaigne Project, I want to focus on John Boehner’s moist eyes. President Obama nearly moved the new Speaker to tears last night when recalling how the son of a Cincinnati barkeeper rose to become Speaker of the House. Obama’s killing-with-kindness strategy raises the question — is it better to show courage after a defeat or to evoke pathos?
This was the first issue that Montaigne assayed. He wrote:
The most common way of softening the hearts of those we have offended once they have us at their mercy with vengeance at hand is to move them to commiseration and pity by our submissiveness. Yet flat contrary means, bravery and steadfastness, have sometimes served to produce the same effect.
It’s a stretch to call President Obama’s rhetoric last night a form of submission. In fact, by holding firm to an economic philosophy built around government intervention and defending the new health care law, the President was quietly defiant in places.
But his gentle tone and optimistic language steered clear of continued partisan confrontation. The President even gave some cover to the GOP rhetoric of 2010 by calling lively debate healthy. Montaigne would have been impressed:
I have a marvellous weakness towards mercy and clemency – so much so that I would be more naturally moved by compassion than by respect.
So Montaigne would approve of the President’s tactics, but what of Boehner’s near tears? From the same essay:
disdaining tears and supplications and then yielding only out of respect for the holy image of valour is the action of a strong, unbending soul, reserving its good-will and honour for stubborn, masculine vigour.
The success of the President’s tactics will be measured in role call votes and at the ballot box. But for one night, at least, the President appeared to be more capable of redefinition than many Republicans assume. They would be wise to keep in mind Montaigne’s most famous quote from his first essay when thinking of the 2012 voters:
Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform.