What makes a speech "good" and a politician a "good speaker"? Do speeches matter? If so, what matters in a speech? These questions, in the aftermath of Barack Obama's speech on "race and unity" last week, have been lurking quietly in the shadows of the ensuing debate. But rarely are they addressed outright.
The cable news networks, indirectly, have offered one type of analysis, splicing Obama's speech into sound bites and aiming them, like steel-tipped darts, at particular targets like black voters, white voters, or concerned voters. Each sentence, they argue, was meant for a certain audience. They also look at the effectiveness of a speech and invite pollsters to comment on how the numbers changed afterward.
Meanwhile, Obama's two remaining presidential rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have taken their own pot shots at the Illinois senator's oratory, asking voters to ignore it and focus solely on "the issues." McCain, with typical somberness, told supporters after clinching the GOP nomination, "Americans aren't interested in an election where they are just talked to and not listened to; an election that offers platitudes instead of principles."
Talk does matter, however. In fact, it matters greatly. Both oratory--the art of public speaking--and rhetoric, the art of using language to advance a cause, have deep roots in American culture, and their combined impact on American history has been significant, if not monumental. Recall Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Political speech remains influential today, with sometimes surprising consequences. In 2000, pollsters famously reported that voters were attracted to George W. Bush because they felt they could sit down and "have a beer with him." The buddy phenomenon, it seemed, had less to do with the content of Bush's words and more to do with his style--that Texas twang, those folksy vowels.
So where exactly does speech stand in the 2008 election? To talk about the talk in greater depth, U.S. News spoke with linguistic anthropologist Jennifer Jackson, a Virginia native who received her Ph.D. at Yale University and now is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. Jackson's research focuses on political oratory and rhetoric in the United States and in transitioning democracies in Africa.
The speech Obama gave last week sounded a lot different from his usual stump speech. His voice was different. His tone was different. What was behind the change?
Obama has to ride the line between content and form. In a typical victory speech, for example, he sets people up for the "call and response" by elongating his vowels or doing a lilt in his intonation. In his speech after Iowa, he said something and he had a lilt in his voice, and you can hear someone in the crowd saying, "Yes they did." These are "interactional" cues. They tell the audience, this is a dialogue between me and you. I think last week he was trying to make his speech as unmarked stylistically as possible, because style is what will index--make us think of a certain group. In the race speech he was trying not to do that; he didn't want to index any [ethnic] group.
The story he told about Ashley Baia, a campaign worker, was the same one he used in a speech he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day. The wording was almost verbatim. What did he want this story to do this time around?
Obama wanted to press unity. I think the motivation for the anecdote was to create Ashley as a foil for Reverend Wright, the man he doesn't mention except once or twic. I think it's pretty ingenious on his part. You take Ashley, who is white, young, and working on a black man's campaign; in that whole speech he wanted to show the complexity of race on the ground, what it's like all the time. He did that through his biography, and then through Ashley. She embodied all of that complexity.... If we were to go back and listen to the Ebenezer speech, that story in that speech was more fitting, stylistically, because he was in a church with the intonation and lift. This time he was just trying to pace it out and communicate information.
Obama and Bush obviously have two very different styles of speaking, but both are (or were) popular. Bush, for his part, speaks like "a normal guy." How did this plain speech style become part of our political culture?
Go back to the Founding Fathers. You've got a bunch of guys who are upset at the British crown because their government is inaccessible to the common people and isn't representative. They wanted a democratic nation. They're also upset at the religious dogma of the church, which said man could not have access to God except through priests. So here you have civic and moral infrastructures that keep people very far away from divine providence and any civic participation. The Founding Fathers are going on that when they are thinking about what a new government should look like. Their idea was that God's truth was a single unified order and that all people of common sense were capable of knowing truth. The common sense of man, whether he is behind a plow or a desk or at a church or in a government seat, provided a rock to build democracy. It was anti-elitist. That is where you get this critical eye on plain speech.
But compared with other white male presidents, Bush seems to have taken it to a different level. He's not just speaking plainly.
Right. Obama pretty soon is going to have to make the shift away from style and talk about content, and that's what George Bush didn't do. He had one bag of tricks, which was this stylistic cowboy thing. It worked early on because it personified the salt-of-the-earth plain speaker. He tried to present himself as something that everyone else was. He did that through a number of ways. He did that through accent. He handled multiple registers: On the one hand he had the register of the fraternity boy, shaking his head, leaning up on the podium, [implying] "I'm one of you, I'm nothing more than what you see right here." He did that, and he also handled the register of the sermon. It was not the African-American sermon; it was the Protestant southern sermon. He was never quoting scripture, but he did a warped register of the sermon. He was using the language of a preacher, and along the way people were starting to feel what they would feel as a member of the congregation. People were motivated to trust him because they were trusting the words they would expect of a southern Protestant preacher. His speechwriters were really brilliant. The average American could see their own son making that track to the presidency because of this guy, Bush, who was not untouchable.
Obama's stump speeches, on the other hand, have noticeable elements of the African-American church sermon. Where did this strain come from?
Going back to the post-Revolutionary War era, you have the "other population" in our country that was not part of the democratic movement, and that was slaves. Their ensuing fight to penetrate government was highly motivated and mobilized though the church. If you were African-American, the only public speaking you could do was from behind the pulpit. You were able to use the church. So we have a history of African-American movements coming from churches. When black Americans entered the public sphere and began participating in politics, you start to have a dialogue between styles. Style is still keeping some people from participatin. If someone sounds too much like a black preacher, they can't be president.
Obama has made effective use of the "call-and-response technique," which we traditionally associate with the black church. What does this do for his campaign or his message?
He is using it to say, "We are writing history here." He does that with the use of the pronouns you and they. He will say "you said..." and "you are tired of...." He is recusing himself from being the messianic leader. He is saying, "Look, I am channeling you, I hear you." He doesn't answer questions with I. He also does things like repeat the words this day, this hour. You don't know if people do these things intentionally, but he is calling attention to the current moment, to set this moment as history.
Other politicians have tried these techniques, with mixed results. John Kerry, in his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in 2004, tried to use the call-and-response technique with the phrase "Help is on the way." Why didn't it resonate?
The conditions can't be met by somebody like John Kerry. Kerry can't embody those words successfully. It's linked to his biography and his actual physical appearance. The same with Hillary Clinton. She cannot embody the vernacular register of African-American call-and-response speech. She cannot embody it because she does not meet the conditions of the register. I think if we think of these things on a continuum, there are people like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who can't embody the words of a sermonic register, even the way a Protestant on the pulpit might.
How does American oratory, with its various origins, compare with oratory in other countries? Are these phenomen a uniquely American?
In places like Africa, the more distant and more formal a leader, the more electable he is. You don't want a likable personality, the type of person who puts on flannel and jeans and keeps mud on his shoes. Politicians don't want somebody talking to them from the audience, either, because it breaks down that boundary between leaders and the public. In the U.S., it's different, and I think it ties into our history of having politicians who are accessible and likable.
Hillary Clinton has been trying to get voters to focus on what she says, not how she says it. Is that a good strategy?
If, when Hillary speaks, she starts to sound like all of the negative gender monikers associated with women, that's not good for her. She has to find unmarked space where she is androgynous. So she has been very focused on the content of her speech. She believes you are listening to what she is saying rather than how she is saying it. If you ask anybody in the audience what they are motivated by and what brings them to tears, it is how something is said. So Clinton does not want to be saying that it's all about [Obama's] style. When you tell people, "Don't think of an elephant," they think of an elephant.
What about John McCain?
I think McCain's speechwriters are focused less on his personality in the way Obama and Clinton have to convince the country that a woman or black man can be president. McCain doesn't have to do that. McCain talks so paced, so leveled. In his own way he is trying to go with an unmarked style, but not because he wants people to focus on the content of the speech. I think he has the unmarked style, as much as possible, so people will not concentrate on it that much.
How might history judge Obama's race speech?
The reaction to the speech already shows how a speech lives beyond the event itself. The meaning of a speech does not come from a speech itself but from the meaning its audiences build of it over time. It's the talk about the talk, the talk about the speech, that ultimately matters. Once the speech is removed from the context of this current party struggle, it coud very easily find a new life and a new context as it is recast in the future for future interests and purposes. Just like Gettysburg, the speech lives beyond the event.
By Kent Garber