Gorgeous he was not. He stood a few inches over five feet tall. In
place of his usual Savile Row suit, he wore a light blazer and dark
slacks, and his shirt flared open at the collar. His hair was
thinning, his tan fading. But, when he ascended the podium, the
audience cheered. It was Saturday night at the First Congregational
Church in downtown Washington, and George Galloway-- the most
celebrated visiting orator in the United States--was about to
address the antiwar crowd.Galloway's day job is representing an East London neighborhood in
British Parliament for the respect Party. (He was expelled from
Labour in 2003 after a decade of criticizing party leadership.) But
over the past year, he has found success on these shores. The New
York Times anointed him a "flamboyant orator and skilled debater."
Of a tirade he unleashed on Capitol Hill last spring, CNN's Wolf
Blitzer raved, "A blistering attack on U.S. senators rarely heard
or seen." More recently, a columnist on The Nation's website lauded
Galloway for being "inspiring and succinct." U.S. news outlets have
affectionately taken to calling him "Gorgeous George," a nickname
in the U.K. that honors his foppish insouciance.
But, at the antiwar speech, when I saw Galloway--once memorably
described as "a Louis Vuitton-toting Socialist"--he had dressed
down for his audience, a crowd that was not chic, not even radical
chic. It was mostly middle-aged, and its members favored patchouli
and hemp over Chanel. Earlier that day, many of them had been among
the 100,000 antiwar protesters filling up the wide avenues around
the National Mall. Galloway was in the capital to support the rally,
as well as to cap off his monthlong national antiwar speaking tour.
(He had previously promised the faithful "a good workout with Hanoi
Jane, formerly Barbarella, the divine Miss Jane Fonda," but, rather
mortally, she had to bow out for hip surgery.) For
$10, anyone wishing to hear the iniquities of the Imperial West
tallied alongside the virtues of Tariq Aziz could have a space in
the pews. And, for $13.95 more, they could purchase the orator's
new book, Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington.
A ticket got you much more than an hour with Galloway. His opening
act was a series of brief speeches by stock characters of the
antiwar movement-- the disillusioned soldier, the bereaved mother,
the Arab-American, the socialist litterateur. The crowd received
them with polite enthusiasm, but little anticipation. Ever since
coalition troops stormed into Baghdad in 2003, what the U.S.
antiwar movement has been in search of is a good spokesperson.
Galloway is who they found. "He just talks better than any American
politician, " gushed one woman at the Washington speech.
Galloway didn't disappoint his fans, even if they may have found his
stream- of-conscious style confusing. For 45 minutes, in a nimble
Scottish brogue, he maneuvered between fiery indictments of Tony
Blair and George W. Bush and jolly invocations of his favorite
bards--Shakespeare, Wilde, Augustine, Orwell. His greatest hit of
the night was repeating a retort he had recently put to radio host
Michael Medved (not about Iraq): "Isn't that a little vainglorious?"
(The hyperarticulate put-down is a Galloway specialty.) He also
teased out many striking historical parallels-- comparing Bush to
Alexander the Great; the neocons to the Bloomsbury group.
It wasn't the first time Galloway had puzzled America with his wit.
Last May, he descended vociferously on a hearing of the Senate
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee, like
several newspapers before, had accused him in a report of receiving
oil vouchers from Saddam Hussein and then laundering the money
through the Mariam Appeal, his charity for Iraqi children.
Galloway, in his defense, dismissed the allegation as "the mother of
all smokescreens" and Norm Coleman, the Republican subcommittee
chair, as "remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice." Besides
hyperbole, he also brandished two other rhetorical devices.
Avoidance: He dodged questions about a Jordanian business associate
accused of illegal dealings in Iraq. And fabrication: He accused
ranking Democrat Carl Levin of supporting the war. "Sorry about
that," Levin replied flatly, "I didn't."
"Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."
This is perhaps the most famous phrase Galloway has ever uttered,
and, over the past decade, he has employed his full range of
oratorical powers trying to prove he didn't mean it. The words were
addressed to Saddam Hussein during a 1994 visit to Baghdad.
Galloway now insists that his admiration was directed at the Iraqi
people. Their courage, their strength, their indefatigability. But
his protestations hardly seem credible: As his antiwar speech
demonstrated, his language is ornate, but his politics are
In her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age, Kathleen Hall Jamieson
speculates that artful political rhetoric began to wane when
"[d]ramatically illustrated discursive argument [gave] way to
dramatically bodied assertion." And what does Galloway do if not
assert? He asserts likenesses (between the Third Reich and the Bush
administration). He asserts injustices (largely those committed
against himself). He asserts insults (here he is truly an
egalitarian). His eloquence is the worst kind the antiwar movement
could hope for: It is all presumption and no persuasion.
The marquee moment of Galloway's speaking tour was not his
Washington finale but his New York debate with fellow British
expatriate Christopher Hitchens. The two men hadn't met since
mutually heckling each other at last spring's Senate hearing, and
the trash talk leading up to the big night--Galloway called
Hitchens a "drink-sodden former Trotskyite popinjay"; Hitchens
declared Galloway a "disgusting figure"--was nerdy belligerence at
its best. After an hour of sharp parrying, the moderator asked each
of the men to respond with a simple yes or no to the question of
whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq. "Not only do
I..." Galloway began. "Only a word, only a word," the moderator
interrupted. For a moment, Galloway was speechless.