A Mother’s Wisdom: Think Before You Speak

From a Wall Street Journal column by Daniel Henninger headlined “Words That Cause Catastrophes”:

Are we ready yet to re-adopt the tried-and-true guide to life known as a mother’s wisdom?

Our current banking panic, and other tumultuous events of recent years, bring to mind one of mother’s good ideas: Think before you speak.

We know that in an era of instant media transmission ill-chosen words move well beyond a personal problem for the speaker. Loose talk can put in motion national and international catastrophes that may wreck lives, economies and political systems.

Until a few days ago, Ammar al-Khudairy was one of the world’s most powerful men, as chairman of Saudi National Bank. He resigned Monday, reportedly for “personal reasons.” Not quite.

In an interview two weeks ago, as a banking panic was leaking out of California, Mr. Khudairy said the Saudi bank would “absolutely not” give more capital to on-the-bubble Credit Suisse bank. In hours, that Saudi “absolutely not” had Switzerland itself headed for collapse

Suddenly, a bank panic that originated inside a navel-gazing boutique regional bank in Silicon Valley had jumped across the Atlantic to threaten one of the world’s 30 “global systemically important” banks. Switzerland’s national authorities quickly compelled its other major bank, the massive UBS, to swallow Credit Suisse.

Here’s another fellow who never listened to his mother: Donald Trump. One must posit that despite, or perhaps because of, his habit of saying whatever enters his mind, Mr. Trump did get elected president of the United States. While Mr. Trump himself regrets nothing, much of the country likely regrets his compulsion to tweet, during the chaotic afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”

Mr. Trump was self-referencing his insistence that Vice President Pence, presiding at that moment over the U.S. Senate, should have voted to block certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s legal culpability for that day aside, there is no doubt that the destructive forces put in motion on Jan. 6 were related both to his Pence remark and earlier statements about a “stolen election.”

The aftermath has been unhappy for many pulled into the Trump verbal vortex. Hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants have federal crime on their records, including time in prison. Decisions later this year by special counsel Jack Smith, whose remit includes Jan. 6, could wreak havoc on the Republican presidential nomination process. On Tuesday a federal judge ruled that Mr. Pence must speak to the special counsel’s grand jury. What a massive, avoidable political mess was created by thought-free public words.

Democrats for their part would have liked to avoid those four years altogether. But one ill-tempered word uttered toward the end of the 2016 presidential campaign—“deplorables”—ended that chance. Hillary Clinton had put Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in play.

Joe Biden routinely invokes the wisdom of his father, but “think before you speak” manifestly wasn’t on dad’s list. Mr. Biden’s routine gaffes—innumerable websites are devoted to tallying them—may be regarded as a joke, but they’ve put the Democratic Party in the awkward position of unifying around an incumbent president whose approval rating just hit 40%, according to Gallup.

You might say these misspeakers are diagnosable outliers. But then one has to account for the recent case of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair normally expert in the say-nothing ambiguities of Fedspeak. Across three days after the run at Silicon Valley Bank, Ms. Yellen, speaking for the president, first said the government would cover all bank deposits, took that back the next day and then remade the all-deposits commitment. Stressed financial markets bounced off the walls with every new statement.

Yes, everyone misspeaks. It remains true that politics ain’t beanbag. And no, we don’t want to live in a world where everyone in public sounds like Alejandro Mayorkas explaining why the open southern border is secure.

Still, in the new-media era, public statements can become political ballistic missiles. Once fired, you can’t call them back. In an interview last week with Fox News, Mr. Pence pointedly said that while the country is ready to return to Mr. Trump’s policies, it also needs a more “civil environment” to succeed.

Mr. Pence deserves thanks for putting the problem of indiscriminate talk by national political figures on the table. He and other expected competitors for the Republican nomination already offer an interesting array of post-Trump presentation styles.

Florida’s combative Gov. Ron DeSantis walks a fine line between welcome antiwoke belligerence and disruptive missteps, such as describing Ukraine’s “territorial dispute” with Russia. Those two words earned him an invitation from Ukraine’s foreign ministry to visit the war zone.

Nikki Haley is trying the hopeful unflappability of the next-in-line generation.

In Iowa last month, Sen. Tim Scott delivered an intriguing, wide-ranging “new leaders” speech that managed to confront the opposition while offering openings to conciliation.

Sen. Scott cites his mother for much of his success. Think before you speak must have been in there somewhere. These days, it ought to be a voting issue.

Daniel Henninger’s weekly column, “Wonder Land,” appears in The Wall Street Journal each Thursday. Henninger was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing in 1987 and 1996, and shared in the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of the attacks on September 11.

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