Leonard asks not to be identified beyond his first name. Almost hidden behind the lectern, he is a career civil servant, dressed in a gray suit and a drab necktie. Lonely strands of lifeless hair stray across a bare scalp.
“Government officials have a jam-packed agenda full of important meetings and telephone calls, as well as urgent business such as shredding documents, silencing whistleblowers, and flouting subpoenas. No one can expect them to write a new speech for every occasion or think about issues. The Bureau of Redundancy has therefore issued an all-purpose speech.”
Leonard has copies available. He will take questions.
Who can use A Brief Remark?
“Those with no pretension to excellence, desire to inform, or talent for winning over an audience. The bureau is cognizant that many in public life, including political appointees, have a habit of talking. We wanted to address that.”
Where will the speech be given?
“Plaque unveilings, commemorative awards, departmental lunches, ribbon cuttings, school graduations, and volunteer pep talks,” he says. “It’s nonreferential.”
Speeches are often loaded with stock phrases, vague exhortations, and empty promises. How is this one different?
“That’s an unfair characterization.” Leonard wags a finger. “The invitation comes at the last minute, the occasion is obscure, and the risk of saying something inappropriate far outweighs the trouble of finding new and interesting things to say on the subject.”
Does anyone listen?
“Enemies do. Political operatives and party hacks. That’s why bland assurances and trite observations are so essential. Stay on message. Who needs another gotcha quote in the media?”
Did Leonard write the speech?
“No one individual is responsible for the document being released today. A number of staff contributed to research, the initial draft, and several revisions. The speech is a collective effort. It would be impossible to point to a particular passage as having been written by anyone.”
Is there any significance to the timing of today’s release?
“Not that I’m aware of.” Leonard affects an air of confidentiality. “I hope I’m not giving away any secrets here, but given the current state of affairs, with so much hanging in the balance, things were a little slow at the office. Someone said something along the lines of: Wouldn’t it be great if we had a generic speech, like the boilerplate in a contract?”
The document is one page long. Isn’t that unusual in today’s world of thick dossiers, multi-count indictments, and gargantuan reports?
“Brevity is good. The Bureau of Redundancy is actively engaged in the ongoing battle against bloat and blather. As Samuel Johnson once said of that masterpiece of English literature, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’”
Speaking of poetry, the speech is written in rhymed verse, like a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, or a patter song in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Why is that?
“As the project was nearing finalization, somewhat late in the game, those involved in the actual wording belatedly started to realize it was dragging. It needed a cadence, a beat, and a hook. The decision was made to cast it in a form to appeal to the widest possible audience.”
Or the lowest common denominator?
“Suit yourself.” Leonard is blasé. “The speech is easy to memorize. A busy person can show up at an event, realize they forgot to bring a paper copy, and still deliver.”
In the interest of transparency, here is the text.
Inasmuch as the preceding is the stuff that came before, Which in olden days was called contemporary, And the antiquated version is the one from days of yore, Superseded as the subsequent may vary, And the prior iteration, formerly the heretofore, Was the first attempt and not the secondary, Certain aspects of the current situation may appear In the here and now at any given moment, For the day’s events accumulate and threaten by the sheer Magnitude of data-driven fact to foment An awareness in the present, it’s becoming all too clear, That the time has come to call for public comment. Though one hesitates to squarely lay the lion’s share of blame On the status quo, a system purely static, Doing nothing in the hope that everything will stay the same, While the underlying problem grows emphatic, And the overriding menace is acute, a crying shame, While the policy in place is symptomatic, At this juncture, as we strive to bring the future up to date From a vantage point enmeshed in senseless fiction, Let us craft a plan of action to advance the ideal state Of a forward-looking people of conviction Pledged to march together onward toward the vision of a great Consummation of our common contradiction.
Robert Boucheron can be followed on Twitter @rboucheron.