The Misapplication of “Campaign in Poetry and Govern in Prose”

Whenever I hear this phrase, I shudder.  It’s usually said as if we’re supposed to accept that candidate lying during election campaigns is fine.

Recently, CNN’s  Chris Cuomo attributed this phrase to his father, Mario Cuomo.  But out of context it can have a different meaning than his father intended.  I remember hearing Mario Cuomo speak eloquently at Stanford University about how getting rich is fine so long as you give back.  He cared about the underserved and also about the truth.

Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker considered the poetry vs. prose phrase one of many melancholy ones Mario Cuomo repeated.  These tended to have a dose of reality within them gleaned from years of experience in politics.  Campaigns do involve putting one’s best foot forward from the perspective of those you wish to influence.  But this observation is not an acceptance of political duplicity.

Words matter.  The more we hear “campaign in poetry and govern in prose” as advisory, the greater the risk that lying will become acceptable even as it dupes the electorate and undermines democracy.

“Campaign in poetry and govern in prose” can be misused effectively to justify duplicity by the duplicitous among us.  When that happens, we’ve abdicated our responsibility to expect honesty from those who aspire to lead.


Updated April 14, 2017

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