Thursday, February 21, 2008

McCain And Clinton To Obama: No More Good Speeches




Finally, John McCain and Hillary Clinton have something in common: They are both against good oratory. In fact, the speeches McCain and Clinton gave after winners and losers were declared last Tuesday were pretty similar. Voters were urged not to trust "eloquent but empty" words by one of them, while the other one said, "We need to make a choice between speeches and solutions,..." I don't remember which one said which, but it doesn't really matter. The point is that both of them warned the country not to trust language that in a previous time would have been called the "silver tongue" or the "fancy speechifying" of Barack Obama. Somehow this year, it has become a bad thing to be able to make good speeches.


Obviously, this is not the first time in American politics that candidates have pandered to voters by seeming to be anti-intellectuals and "just plain folks." Andrew Jackson's campaigns characterized him as a daring adventurer when running against dandies with too much "book learnin'." Adlai Stevenson was derided by his opponents as being too much of an intellectual, or an "egghead." More recently, there was Ronald Reagan who made the statement while running for governor of California that "universities should not subsidize intellectual curiosity." And the books aren't even closed yet on the President who made "nucular" a word and has been anything but an eloquent speaker.


Most American politicians have simply feigned this anti-intellectualism and "aw shucks, I'm just one of you" attitude. The current crop has followed in this tradition. Clinton, Obama, and McCain, schooled at Yale, Harvard, and Annapolis, certainly didn't have an anti-intellectual education. But that doesn't stop them from trying to be "one of us." McCain says "my friends" almost as often as he says, "surge." Clinton and Obama are capable of turning on and off accents and dialects depending upon the group they're speaking to. But I've never heard a candidate criticized before just because he's good with words.


I'm not a fan of demagoguery, but I don't think that's what's going on here. Obama's opponents may say that's the case, but in their doing so, they're using their own brand of demagoguery. I don't remember Senator Clinton criticizing Barack Obama as using empty words back when he made his famous convention speech. She seemed just as excited by his speech as the rest of the Democratic Party.


McCain and Clinton really seem to be trying to convince America that Obama should not be trusted because he is a captivating speaker. One of the strangest aspects of criticizing Obama like this is that it's acknowledging that he's a better speaker, a better communicator than they are. Since so much of running for President is making speeches, is it really a good idea to admit that your opponent is better at it than you? Would any of them admit that the other one was better at kissing babies?


What's really annoying is the condescension that this criticism of Obama reveals. It's as if they're saying that we Americans, we potential voters can't tell what is meaningful language and what is not. If it weren't for our good buddies, Obama's opponents, we might be taken in by all his fancy language. I'm not just engaging in my own demagoguery when I say that I have a lot more faith in the American people than that. I think we know when someone is just trying to manipulate us by his or her language -- and that's exactly what Obama's opponents are trying to do.


Don't get me wrong. Everyone running for high political office speaks largely in platitudes. We always have to listen with an appropriate amount of cynicism. But I like listening to someone who can speak in sentences of more than three words. I don't think there's anything wrong with inspirational, motivational oratory. It wouldn't be the end of our country if we had a leader who spoke using proper English. It's about time for that, ain't it?





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