April 7th, 2008 08:09 EST
Figures of Speech Can Be Role Models Too?
Writing isn’t just structure. A good editor looks for tone and demeanor. If a writer is smiling or joking or shrugging, that should come through. The tone-deaf editor of literary writing is usually ferreted out, but tone-deafness in journalism under cover of balance can get by for a long time. All writing is distinctive, even bad writing. The editor must not leach its distinctiveness out of it.
By-the-book dogmatists, whether they use the Chicago or the AP style books, are a pox. They have neither respect for the writer nor self-confidence.
All this is a given, however much it may be ignored. Because I’m both a writer and a editor I think about it every day. But I have never until the last presidential election thought about it in terms of political speechifying.
It has become canonical to say that President Bush was twice elected, thanks to white males, because he was perceived as a guy they’d like to have a beer with at the VFW hall. Compared to John Kerry and Al Gore, he certainly comes across as a regular guy. All three of them are sons of privilege, but the President cultivates a down-home colloquialism.
I think this may be half the story, and I don’t dispute it. But I think Al Gore’s professorial style of speaking and John Kerry’s mortuarial style had a lot to do with what happened. It’s one thing to know the guy we chat with at the post office is a professor or a mortician, it’s another thing to have him drown us in his drone. We expect him to lighten up at the post office. After all, he just’s collecting his mail, like us.
In this context President Bush was the modernist and his opponents were throwbacks to an oratorical time when we were looking for a hieratic voice. In other words, the authoritarian Bush democratized political campaigning, while his opponents came across as elitist suits.
Five minutes of listening to John Kerry is enough to make one long for Ross Perot.And Al Gore’s insufferable knowledgability is enough to send us gratefully to Bush’s mendacious good-ole-boyism. Neither Bush nor his opponents have Bill Clinton’s delightful knack for getting across complex ideas without condescending.
Unfortunately for her, Hillary Clinton doesn’t share her husband’s talent in this respect. Her haranguing, old-fashioned stump speeches get on the nerves in the first minute. Once she starts speaking we’ve already heard enough, even though, like her husband, she has real ideas in her head. She’s a stem-winder in a period when the only way you can speak in that manner is when it has some kind of cultural authenticity. Her adoptive Southernisms don’t come across as genuine. Her rising stridencies merely annoy us. She sounds like a throwback to a time to which we don’t want to return.
We knew the Roosevelts, Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, were patricians. We expected eloquence from them, we needed it. We knew Woodrow Wilson was a professor. But we don’t think that way about Mrs. Clinton, and President Bush’s crawdadisms have persuaded us not to think of him as as patrician. As for Senator Kerry and Vice President Gore, all we asked is that they sound human, not humanoid. We simply didn’t feel like electing cyborgs.
And that is a consideration Senator Clinton might usefully savor. She isn’t as boring as President Bush’s two opponents, but every time she speaks we subconsciously say to ourselves, Hoo boy, here we go again.
And that brings us to her opponents, BarackObama and John McCain. Senator Obama, a patrician by nature of his innate class and smarts, knows that he can sound like a cross between Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy. It’s an intriguing formula.
On the one hand his voice is familiar to the disenfranchised and distrustful, and on the other hand it’s familiar enough to whites to provide a comfort zone. What remains to be seen is how his trochees, spondees and caesuras will be received by young white males.
Senator McCain comes across as avuncular, and only the most astute, like cops who study micro-expressions, will identify its edge, suggesting both anger and recklessness. He talks like a vast cross-section of the country, and he strikes us as much more genuine than the President. But the careful listener, the voter-cop, will sense his dismissiveness, his impatience with facts, his ideological inflexibility. He’s not going to charm anyone with his smarts, as President Clinton did, but on the other hand he’s not going to offend the press corps with them either, as President Clinton did. The press may say it wishes a savvy president for the rest of us, but Bill Clinton’s mastery of issues often irritated the press. But not, interestingly, the electorate, which is why he left office with high poll numbers, whereas President Bush seems destined to leave office mired in the dismals.
A speech writer can only do so much for a speaker. In the end the speaker has to strike a chord with audiences. They must be convinced they’re being talked to not at. They must be convinced the speaker is talking up to them, ot down—there’s the pitfall into which Vice President Gore and Senator Kerry tumbled. Senator Obama excels in convincing audiences he’s speaking up to them; in my view he must now convince them he’s speaking with them.
As for Senator Clinton, I think she must find in herself a more conversational, indeed a more respectful tone. She must find a way to sound less hectoring and more humble. She sounds as if she’s too accustomed to power and privilege, to having it her way, and in a year when the voters clearly want change that’s not the smart way to sound.
I doubt the problem is with the McCain, Clinton or Obama speech writers. It’s rather in the way their candidates edit the material as they deliver it. To test this idea, listen to the radio personalities of our time.
Often, thank God not always, they offer us a content-free zone, but they connect with our prejudices and fears in our barber shops, in our cars, in our bars. They have the Bush touch, and most often they’re just as shallow and misleading. They know we like to have our biases affirmed.
Bill Clinton survived an impeachment and disgrace he brought on himself precisely because he kept on striking voters as a very savvy guy who spoke respectfully to us. Nothing his Republican enemies could do broke that bond with his listeners. It is to Bill Clinton’s manner of speech that today’s candidates, perhaps especially Mrs. Clinton, should look for instruction. He didn’t try to dumb things down, he didn’t try to wow us with his smarts; he just talked to us politefully as friends.
I wouldn’t have Senator Obama for a minute emulate this style. He has his own successful style, and it’s not offending or tranquilizing us. His style could get out of hand; it could get tedious and strike us as empty,
as something we’ve heard before. But he knows this. Mrs. Clinton’s style is already out of hand; it’s grating and succeeds in putting us on the defensive. We needed to drink lots of coffee to bear with Senator Kerry and our former vice president, but with Mrs. Clinton we just want to get out of the room.—DM