AUSTIN, Texas ? You may think a person would bring up the subject of political rhetoric in our day only to dis it, to mourn the decline of the once-noble art, to compare the puny babble of our modern pipsqueaks to the magnificent cadences of Jefferson, Lincoln and Churchill, and so lament anew. Not me.

What I mourn is that none of the current candidates measures up to the glory years of the Ineffable Big George Bush and the Immortal Dan Quayle, who shall be forever revered for setting new standards in political language.

My personal favorite in the oratory sweepstakes is George W. Bush, who is rapidly developing a style that may yet become comparable to his father's. He is a master of the perfectly opaque response. We now know that Ronald Reagan's famous line in the 1980 campaign ? "There you go again!" ? was carefully scripted in advance. This leads to visions of an entire team of W. Bush speech writers cogitating on how to achieve the perfect nonanswer. Examples:

? "Whatever's fair."

? "Whatever's right."

? "I'm all right on that."

? "Whatever is fair between the parties."

And, a recent gem of opacity:

? "I will take a balanced approach on the environment."

That last one was Bush's death-defying leap to separate himself from all the candidates who have promised to take an unbalanced approach on the environment.

During an impassioned speech in support of free trade this month, Bush said, "If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, this economy will grow!"

Another great moment with Bush the Younger was his answer to the question, "Do you support affirmative action?"

Said the then-governor: "What I am against is quotas. I am against hard quotas, quotas they basically delineate based upon whatever. However they delineate, quotas, I think vulcanize society. So I don't know how that fits into what everybody else is saying, their relative positions, but that's my position."

In South Carolina he told supporters: "This is still a dangerous world. It's a world of madmen and uncertainty and potential mential loss." OK, maybe it was "menshul."

The Financial Times of London noted that the Bush revealed the urgent need for higher standards in subject-verb agreement when he said, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

If you cast your mind back to the long-gone days of 1992, you may recall that after four years of Big George's pronounless prose, Bill Clinton was considered something of a wonder because he spoke in complete sentences. Indeed, in complete paragraphs. People actually wrote about it at the time: "He speaks in complete sentences."

Of course, that was compared to Big George, who once delivered this complete sentence: "It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or the other." And a more typical bon mot: "To kind of suddenly try and get my hair colored, and dance up and down in a mini-skirt or something, you know, show that I've got a lot of jazz out there and drop a bunch of one-liners, I'm running for the president of the United States. I kind of think I'm a scintillating fellow."

And this happy thought on the recession: "Coming off a pinnacle, you might say, of low unemployment."

We were also accustomed to hearing from Dan Quayle in those days ("If we don't succeed, then we run the risk of failure"), so we're starting from a low threshold here ? the rhetorical equivalent of having Dick Morris shape domestic policy.

The Nation recently described Al Gore as "an attack chihuahua" for a series of observations that cannot be described as in the positive vein. Gore accused Bill Bradley of being a quitter, a hypocrite, a disloyal Democrat, a "left-of-center insurgent," who would break the bank with his "throwback" health-care proposal while addressing "only a small number of things at a time."

The Nation notes that Gore is a charter member of the Democratic Leadership Council, which campaigns for privatizing Social Security and voucherizing Medicare and school choice. This has not prevented Gore from assailing Bradley for proposing a debate on Social Security reforms and voucher experiments.

The only thing to be said for Gore's performance is that he can get through an entire debate without using the word "whatever."

According to The Dallas Morning News, during a primary debate in Iowa, when Alan Keyes accused Bush of doing nothing when the town of El Cenizo adopted Spanish as the language for all official business, Bush replied, "No es el verdad" (That's not the truth). That would, of course, be "la verdad" in Spanish.

Reminding us all of Jim Hightower's line when he was informed that Gov. Bill Clements was studying Spanish: "Oh, good. Now he'll be bi-ignorant."

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate Inc.

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