Voice of America
By Christopher P. Winner
ice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speaks English in the way many Americans do, excitedly and often haltingly. Called on to focus, she gushes. Asked to elaborate, she dissembles. Hectored for specifics, she simpers.
Gush is a word most Americans know.
Dissemble and simper are decidedly less common.
Which is why it's misleading to deconstruct Palin's candidacy using her linguistic bobbles and lollygagging non-sequiturs. Her shortcomings amuse and bemuse followers of language, a tribe onetime Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled "nattering nabobs of negativity" (credit then-speechwriter Bill Safire for the phrase), but their skepticism is predictable and self-fulfilling.
The lampoonable Palin fits where stock markets can't. She even elicits one-upmanship among her bashers.
Maureen Dowd complained of "pompom patois and sing-songy jingoism"; if "might once made right," wrote Richard Cohen, "Now a wink does."; "To vote in protest for McCain/Palin," suggested Gloria Steinen, "would be like saying, 'Somebody stole my shoes, so I'll amputate my legs'"; "I'm sorry, Governor Palin," lectured Briton Roger Cohen, "words matter."
Oral tradition varies. Rhetoric helps populists and sages, forging a mystical terrain between preacher and preached to that can be folksy or grand, or both.
Eloquence is different. Brewed from intelligence, wit and persuasion, it's hard to assign. Bill Clinton was eloquent and preacher-like, a switch-hitting gift that made him endearing or enraging. Barack Obama is significantly different. He broadcasts a cooler intelligence, measured and conversational.
The last four Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama, have all been lucid and occasionally highbrow products of the American ivory tower. Each spoke an urbane language that big-city journalists and pundits could associate with whatever their political preference.
George W. Bush dented that model. His NASCAR speech fractured all things presidential. That was fine as an amiably outclassed outsider, but his victory shoved writers toward a man whose verbal shortcomings were rationalized and protected by shark-like advisers inclined to articulate policy in private.
The 2001 terrorist attacks gave Bush wide berth. His speech became the hallmark of a mash-mouthed aftermath that grimly milked street cred from snappy belligerence. His bluntness fed those inside and outside government who associated toughness with slogan-rich terseness.
But when Bush's bluntness was exposed as deceit-laden, writers felt fooled and foolish. Misstatements tolerated in the name of patriotism were seen suddenly to reflect systematic incoherence and bad faith. The façade fell apart. Language mattered again.
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