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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It has added no luster to the history of American rhetoric that the institutionalization of presidential debates, which began in 1976, featured a matchup between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Neither man was a Churchill, though Carter, an engineer by training, could be precise almost to a fault. (Certainly no one in 1976 would have suspected that Carter, in retirement, would publish a book of poetry.) Ford was another matter. He spoke slowly and deliberately, but he managed nonetheless to jumble his syntax and leave his phrases dangling. Smooth he was not. Perhaps to his credit, he could not talk and chew gum at the same time. 

Ronald Reagan remains the most intriguing of the Republicans. Known today as the Great Communicator, he was superb in the set speech. At any given moment, he could also shine in debate or extemporaneous speech with a great quip or a beautiful one-liner. But even his admirers conceded that he was never one to be concerned with mastering all the details. And they worried continually at what he might come up with, as in his remark in 1981 that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles” (a claim that scientists more than two decades later discovered to be not entirely off-base). Reagan’s weakness in this mode of communication was seized on by his opponents, whose efforts to depict him as a simpleton knew no bounds. Liberal intellectuals, who in this era were less taken than they are today with the intellectual prowess of Hollywood stars, repeatedly belittled Reagan for gleaning his deepest thoughts from the scripts of B-movies. Yet as in Eisen-hower’s case, historians in the decade after Reagan’s retirement discovered that he had read widely and for years carefully crafted his own speeches. 

The post-Reagan era has served only to confirm the weakness of the Republicans’ extemporaneous speaking skills. George Bush père was never thought unintelligent—he had served in posts demanding intellectual ability, like ambassador to China and head of the CIA—but fluent in speaking he was not. He was a chronic assailant of English syntax, and his victory over the more articulate Michael Dukakis owed nothing to his skill at debating or answering questions. Bush’s fate four years later was to encounter a man, Bill Clinton, who was one of the more gifted talkers in American history. A Rhodes scholar, a quick study, and a master of every dossier, Clinton could talk intelligently, or seem to, about almost any subject. (His problem, if he had one, was that he could not stop talking.) To put Bill Clinton four years later in the ring with Bob Dole was an act of rhetorical cruelty. Master of the one-liner, Dole unfortunately found himself in situations where it was necessary to string together a second and third line. 

George W. Bush was much better in both debate and spontaneous exchange than his critics made out. He clearly bested Al Gore in the debates in 2000, though this was more the result of Gore’s own implosion than Bush’s skill; and he held his own against John Kerry, whom the liberal media had built up as an intellectual giant. Still, Bush’s mispronunciations, for example of “nuclear,” and his neologisms, like “misunderestimate,” became the constant fare of late-night comedians. It was no plus for the intellectual distinction of the president that his press secretary, Scott McClellan, defended his deficiency, noting that “Al Gore had perfect diction, and we still beat him. We’ve got a different kind of diction, it’s a good diction.” Far more important, no one listening to Bush would ever say that he could express his thoughts with ease. The joint press conferences he held with Tony Blair were painful displays of how much this deficiency hurt him. Blair, in full command of the language, could express what Bush could only hint at. 

Much the same was evident in the Obama-McCain debates in 2008. John McCain could be sharp and concise in many matters of foreign affairs, but when it came to articulating his views on economic issues, he could not cover his weaknesses. To say it was a struggle would be charitable. Obama might not have been quite the master that some expected him to be, but even so, the contest was unequal.

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