The Magazine

The Gift of Gab

With Mitt Romney as its candidate, could the GOP find that its long national nightmare of verbal inadequacy is over?

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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If, as most pundits now believe, Mitt Romney has the inside track for the Republican nomination, he is the first GOP candidate in more than a generation not to be syntactically challenged. Just look at the list of the party’s choices since Richard Nixon, whether elected (Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush) or defeated (Gerald Ford, Robert Dole, John McCain). Whatever other attributes these candidates possessed, facility in extemporaneous exchange was not one of them. None of these men could be counted on to handle a challenging question, let alone always keep noun and verb somewhere near their rightful places.

Cartoon of Mitt Romney

Chris Morris

This deficiency took a psychological toll on the Republican faithful over the years. Hours before a presidential debate or a major interview or press conference, Republicans, nerves frayed, would begin beseeching heaven that their candidate might escape disaster. Could he get through without denying that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe (Gerald Ford in 1976) or leaving some imaginary figure, a century hence, wandering aimlessly down a California coastal highway (Ronald Reagan in 1984)?

With Mitt, at last, Republicans can sleep easy. Agree with him or not, this is a man who’s not about to be stumped. Romney’s verbal repertoire even extends to a capability that Republicans had forgotten still existed: nuance. Romney displayed his adeptness in the New Hampshire debate three weeks ago when parrying a challenge about the complexity of his 59-point plan from Herman Cain. Without hesitation, and with no hint of condescension, Mitt explained “that simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.” Not exactly an answer that Bob Dole would have come up with on the spot. And he showed that he could stand up for himself as well, going toe-to-toe with Rick Perry last week in Las Vegas in the epic battle for the microphone.

Romney’s debate performances the first time around, in 2007-08, were not always so well honed. To his credit, he used his four years of practice to master the craft. This kind of hard work and discipline in an executive may be exactly what the American people are looking for this time. Besides, the simple truth is that there are few absolute naturals in this business.

The template for Republican verbal inadequacy was established before the Nixon era by President Eisenhower. Ike became known from his press conferences as one of the English language’s great manglers, to the delight of reporters bent on depicting him as some kind of fool. This view of Ike prevailed for a time until presidential scholars, led by Fred Greenstein, began to point out that not only was he a demanding taskmaster of the written word—he had prepared speeches for General MacArthur in the 1930s—but his imprecision was sometimes deliberate or studied. “It is far better,” Eisenhower once noted, “to stumble or speak guardedly than to move ahead smoothly and risk imperiling the country.” 

Across the aisle, meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate in 1952 and 1956, spoke like an intellectual. The intelligentsia, the cheapest date around, embraced him as one of their own, beginning a love affair with the Democratic party that has endured ever since. No matter what the truth, the thinking classes, with the sophisticated journalists following obediently behind, have regarded the Democrats as their kind and most Republicans as dunces. Republicans’ verbal struggles provided just enough cover to make the charge plausible.

Nixon stands as the exception. An articulate speaker, he was usually at ease handling difficult questions. But even Nixon caused Republicans much mental anguish. No one could know when his suppressed feelings of inferiority or self-pity might come bubbling to the surface, as in his promise to the press, after losing the California governor’s race in 1962, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon prided himself on being an accomplished debater, and he showed as much in the first-ever televised presidential debate against John F. Kennedy, whom the media were already touting as a great intellect. Nixon was judged to be victorious in surveys of those who listened on radio, though the opposite was the case for TV viewers. The simple fact was that Kennedy was handsome, while Nixon couldn’t get a clean shave.

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