The relative power of words, as opposed to actions, has been a recurring theme in the Democratic nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republicans are being tripped up by their own words, as well. A principle emerges, one dear to the heart of every English teacher: Words matter, just as much as actions, and sometimes they matter more.

In spite of his eloquence — or because of it — Obama has been a particular target, accused by the Clinton camp of fancy rhetoric, but weak substance, unsupported by accomplishments. Ironically, Obama has lately been undermined by someone else’s words, those of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who did no favors for his preferred candidate with his intense fulminations from the pulpit. But the Wright episode provided Obama with an occasion to produce some fine words on the subject of race, which may have helped repair the damage.

I suspect that voters won’t hold the pastor’s words against the parishioner for long. After all, some of Wright’s most outrageous comments reflect the truth. Others are ridiculously false. But when it comes to language, we don’t ordinarily have the same expectations of pastors that we have of politicians.

Mike Huckabee, a pastor himself, was able to confess his disbelief in evolution, a paradigm of modern science, and still be taken seriously.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, may not recover so easily — or at all — from her misstatements about her arrival in Bosnia, ducking, she said, beneath sniper fire. Videotape and eyewitnesses seem to confirm that her words were a significant exaggeration. Less generous observers call them a lie.

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain, the party’s nominee, confused Sunnis and Shiites on several occasions, saying that Al Qaeda was slipping over the border for training and re-supply in Iran.

It’s a mistake distressingly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s nonchalance about the complex factions at work in Iraq. President Bush hasn’t yet been held to account for that mistake. Since the distinction between Sunni and Shiite is hazy for many Americans, it’s unlikely that McCain will suffer much for his mistake, either.

But the most telling rhetorical slip-up of last week involved only a single word. On March 19, ABC’s Martha Raddatz interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney in Oman. When she pointed out that two-thirds of the American citizenry think that the Iraq War wasn’t worth fighting, Cheney’s reply was “So?”

This remarkable statement hasn’t gotten much attention. The White House tried to recover by issuing a transcript of the interview that showed a different answer to the question the first time Raddatz asked it. Nevertheless, Cheney’s “So?” is unmistakably contemptuous of the will of the American people, which for some time has been clear and emphatic about the war.

The American people could be wrong about this.

Abandoning this war in midstream (and we’re much nearer midstream than we are to the opposite bank) could result in real chaos that will be bad for us in the long run. Or not. No one really knows.

But the point of a democracy is that the will of the people supersedes the position of even someone as powerful as the vice president. Even if the people are wrong.

Cheney’s single word, “So,” is much more un-American than anything Rev. Wright said.

Speaking of words: the word from Iraq is very bad. The surge isn’t working.

Americans believe in doing things; but the only action that’s likely to resolve the mess in Iraq is a bloody, destructive civil war with an uncertain outcome. Better to keep our power in the background and turn to words, with Iran, with Syria, with Saudi Arabia.

Our country was built on words. Sure, we had a war, too, but words made us what we are. And words may be the only hope for Iraq.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)

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