Policy Politics Written English

Hillary and Obama: The Importance of Being Illiterate?

From Andrew Romano’s blog for Newsweek, Stumper:

There’s always that risk, particularly in America–the suspicion that if something looks good, it can’t possibly work. If someone’s really beautiful, they can’t be smart.

If beauty works against us generally, does the same hold for beautiful words? And if so, is Obama’s erudition hurting his electoral appeal?

Hillary: Small Words Yield Big Gains

The speech in Hillary Clinton’s latest television spot is not exactly sophisticated (key point: “something’s happening in the world”), but the fear-mongering is masterful. In a paternal and slightly threatening voiceover, Clinton’s campaign argues that she is someone who “already knows the world’s leaders” and is “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.” The unspoken assumption here is that the articulate Obama is not.

The commercial aired last weekend, and lo and behold, Clinton won every state she needed to stay in the race with her dignity intact.

Was the groundswell for Clinton a repudiation of Obama’s slick sloganeering? Or could this comeback mean that Americans are still as motivated by fear as the Bush White House presumes us to be?

Obama: Entrapped by his own Eloquence?

The three Clinton wins last night do not negate Obama’s 11-state string of victories. But commentators over the past few weeks have latched on to whether the junior senator’s literary talent could become a liability. David Brooks of the NYT noticed early on, in April of 2007, that

You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.

When Brooks finally gets a direct answer on foreign policy, the columnist notes presciently that Obama’s response is “either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.

Monitoring the Message

I’ll keep an eye on the public reception to each candidate’s campaign rhetoric as the nomination fight continues. It will be interesting to see which tactic–diction or drama–wins out.

9 replies on “Hillary and Obama: The Importance of Being Illiterate?”

“That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!” ~ Adlai Stevenson in response to a woman who called out to him: “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” during his 1956 campaign. care of (Wikiquote) care of Kurt Vonnegut care of Casey’s recommendation of Sirens of Titan.

Politics is an LCD game–Lowest Common Denominator. But how else would you keep on trying to do the impossible: fool all of the people, all of the time? (a quote variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln, P.T. Barnum, and Bob Dylan…all of whom used English for popular advantage).

I wonder if we Americans are so used to political rhetoric that we find it difficult to comprehend a politician who chooses his words carefully, and thinks before he speaks, and is willing to see both sides of an issue. Though in all candor, I found myself feeling more comforted by Hillary’s fast retorts in the Austin debate – a comfort in her sureness, I think – I had to remind myself that as a psychotherapist, I value careful consideration of an issue. I value someone willing to go further than just black and white (no pun intended!)

I think you may be on to something, Annie, if by rhetoric you mean 2-minute soundbites.

I think that right now Obama is facing a double-edged sword: Americans’ longstanding hostility to sophisticated vocabulary and affection for plain speaking (viz. George W. Bush, election of), and the instinctive belief (as you experienced watching television) that actions speak louder than words.

Just had a rousing discussion about this at a lunch with four psychotherapists. We had just read a chapter on the Trojan War in a book called, I believe, “Ethics in Gestalt Therapy.” The author of this chapter, Gordon Wheeler, spoke about the difference between the Greeks and the Trojans – the difference between war mentality, (including the mythological Gods eating their young….which, metaphorically, we still have today…)and the war-like language; and the softer, more reflective mentality (which I liken to Obama.) (And there…I used a semi-colon!) This book, by the way, is amazing. The editor is Robt. Lee, who compiled essays of psychotherapists on the subject of Ethics.

Kenneth Mosssays:

For those of us old enough to have personal memories of John and Robert Kennedy, Obama’s inspiring rhetoric is music to the ears. As a former political junkie, and Political Science major, I find myself disturbed by my own belief that he should channel more Bobby and less MLK. I fear that the speech patterns which are so reminiscent of a black minister will subliminally drive away the closeted (and not-so-closeted) bigots who hesitate before voting for a black man. But I love that a whole new generation gets to hear a politician in the U.S. speak in complete sentences that inspire us, as the U.S. Army used to say, to “be all that we can be”.

As a late-born member of Generation X, I am very interested to hear your take on Obama, Kenneth. Most of the Obamamania I’ve been exposed to so far comes from Americans my own age, both expats here in Berlin and internauts online.

As for your Bobby Kennedy wishes, it may put your mind at ease to take a look at two YouTube clips of Obama and contrast the two: in this one, he is speaking to a mixed-race group at Planned Parenthood. In this other clip, he is giving his now-famous MLK-channeling speech at a mostly-black church in January. Can you hear the difference in cadence? I found it very noticeable and may bring come back to it in a future post.

Thanks for your comment!

Kenneth Mosssays:

I absolutely hear the difference in the cadence. But I differ with you on that which seems to be your point. I do not believe that the audience affects his delivery. I believe that as the campaign goes on, his speeches and the manner in which he gives them have evolved. Listen to his Super Tuesday speech…..he used RFK-like language (as I recall he even did his own version of RFK’s [channeling Camus]line about dreaming things that never were and asking why not) but the cadence was decidedly MLK. And that was a VERY national audience. But I know I have digressed from the topic so……

Digression or no, I’ll have to check that one out. You are right that there is a half-year gap in between the two speeches I linked to, so there could definitely be other explanations.

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