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Rhetorical Recap: The Candidate from La La Land

Hundreds of persons file to run for president each election cycle. The cutoff line between serious contenders and fringe candidates can be fuzzy.

A few days ago Marianne Williamson, who declared her candidacy way back in late January, qualified for the Democratic presidential debates. So here in retrospect is a recap of her speech.

Williamson speaks rapidly, without notes or Teleprompter, and moves her hands constantly. She compels listeners to keep up, which befits the urgency she wants to impart. Her oracular persona makes her the Democratic counterpart to Ben Carson in 2016: elect me, for I bring miracles. Oprah has attested to that, helping to lift five of Williamson’s books to the top of the best-seller lists.

Where Reverend Carson brought out a gospel choir, Marianne, as she is known, stood alone on a bare stage. She made no reference to God or her “Bible,” a multivolume work entitled A Course in Miracles.As E.J. Dickson wrote in Vox:“Otherwise known as the Course, A Course in Miracles is a massive three-volume religious work that teaches that the only real thing in the world is God’s love, and surrendering to God’s plan can lead to inner peace and real-life miracles.”

The event took place at the Saban Theater, known as the Fox Wilshire when I went to movies there while growing up about seven blocks away. Williamson did not say anything about Los Angeles or her career as a lay preacher there, often in the Saban. There was no glitz, either. While the video of the speech featured multiple camera angles, a high production value for presidential announcement speeches, there were no cutaways to celebrities and Williamson dropped no names.

The backdrop consisted of the stripes section of an enormous American flag. That struck a memory chord beyond the film Patton, and I consulted David Kipen’s wonderful compilation Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018. I did not have to search long; the second entry, dated January 1, 1923, reads:

….a scaffolding had been hastily erected in front of the Temple and draped with a great American flag. Loving hands, atremble with eagerness and the excitement of the moment, lifted me to the top of the scaffolding, from which the outside dedication service was held, and from which we read the story of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

The Temple was the Angelus Temple, a still-open Pentecostal megachurch in the Echo Park neighborhood of the city. The writer was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, to whom Williamson is frequently compared. McPherson was much bigger in her day, a century ago. But the combination of a powerful speaking style, great fame, good works (Williamson helped AIDS victims at the height of the crisis), a melodramatic family life (including a faked kidnapping and subsequent trial that held the nation breathless in 1926-27), and the Southern California setting (both women moved there) does help to place the candidate in an American rhetorical tradition.

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Williamson was speaking out, she said:

to engage voters in a more meaningful conversation about America, about our history, about how each of us fit into it, and how to create a sustainable future….Our national challenges are deep, but our political conversation is shallow.

She felt called to the civic pulpit under the dictum “You will not be silent when you see things that make a mockery of love.”

Williamson talked about the responsibilities of her generation (mine, too) to address the psychological traumas imposed on Americans by its plutocratically corrupted political system. She condemned the stockholders-first ethos of fiduciary responsibility as “sociopathic,” “tyrannical,” and “perilous.” She focused on poor children. Who is going to speak for them, she asked. Who is going to help them? They suffer from PTSD, except that there was nothing “Post-” about it; it is their present condition.

Williamson proposed a governmental swap-out: “Our economic councils should be filled with elementary school teachers.” To accomplish that requires a “moral and spiritual regeneration” throughout the land, a political uprising on behalf of the traumatized young. She also advocated reparations to African-Americans in the amount of $10 billion for a decade, to be distributed by a council of African-Americans leaders as they deem fit.

At the 27:44 mark she paused for a rare beat and then said, “And it goes without saying, that’s why I’m running for president.”

A long anti-climactic passage followed. We shall be the nation’s immune cells, she proclaimed, one in a series of sweeping if politically opaque metaphors. Let’s form the campaign equivalent of book clubs, she said, and “talk about things that matter for a year.” (That’s clear and kinda cool!) Then she pitched for donations for a full five minutes. No acolytes with collection plates or envelopes fanned out into the Saban that I could see. At last she all but dropped the mic, and walked off the stage to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

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Running for president and being president are, in part, performance arts, and on this criterion Williamson qualifies, along with the number of donors she has amassed. But a talent for public speaking only goes so far in politics. The thank yous and glad-handing that bookend the conventional declaration of candidacy speech attest to the importance of organizing and engagement. But Williamson is evidently a solo act, more so than Cory Booker, another candidate preaching love while alone on the stage.

Even on the West Side of Los Angeles, which includes Beverly Hills and West Hollywood (but not Echo Park), and where performance art is the local business, speaking chops just don’t suffice. When Williamson ran for Congress from a West Side district in 2014 sheraised $2 million, Katy Perry endorsed her, and Alanis Morissette wrote her campaign theme song. But she finished fourth with 13.2 percent of the vote.

She won’t come close to that in the Democratic primary. But she will enliven the debates she participates in and may affect the party agenda especially if she finds a way to condense her vision into a crusade hashtag. “La La Land” may be a derisive nickname, but it is a real part of America, and a popular destination in American Dreams.

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