Politicians let clichés ring on MLK Day

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is more than just a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of one of America's greatest moral leaders.

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is more than just a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of one of America's greatest moral leaders.

It's also a chance for white politicians to sit uncomfortably in a room full of black people and give stilted, cliché-ridden speeches in an attempt to convince the black community that they care about it the other 364 days of the year.

The MLK Day speech, which rests in a folder in every politician's office to be quickly dusted off each year, has interesting dynamics. Republicans tend to give quick, formal addresses designed to inspire a minimum of snickering at their hypocrisy. Democrats, on the other hand, typically pimp the rare confluence of a friendly audience and an opportunity to speak in religious overtones to full - and sometimes ridiculous - effect.

So last Monday, true to form, President Bush gave a perfunctory "all men are created equal" speech in DC; Dick Cheney remained in an undisclosed location; Democratic New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared that Hurricane Katrina was God's revenge for the Iraq war; and Hillary Clinton, perhaps flashing back to campaign appearances in black Arkansas churches with her husband, told a mostly black audience that the House "has been run like a plantation - and you know what I mean."

Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. Lani Guinier who?

Ah, the predictably kooky rhetoric of MLK Day. It's easy to bemoan the fact that politicians don't honor King by, say, letting some oppressed people out of prison. But despite the depressing maw between King's morality and that of the MLK Day speech givers, the great man will always be remembered for the opportunities he created for that most downtrodden of all groups: multicultural PR agencies.

Hamilton Nolan writes PR Play of the Week. He is a New York-based reporter at PRWeek.

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