However, I’m just wondering: are we really making too big a deal out of the candidates’ abilities to speak well? We all know that we want our candidates to be perfect. That perfection should include, of course, the ability to project like Cicero, pause like Billy Graham, and connect like Ronald Reagan. Ah, how we dream! How unfairly we place such high expectations on those who offer themselves (it is a sacrifice) for public office.
What the national liberal media smart alecs are demanding is smoothness, but media pundits have never understood or expressed what “regular” people wish for. However we define it, smooth is what rough isn’t. But can anything be said for the candidate who is not smooth? History answers “Yes!”
We remember Lincoln for the Lincoln-Douglass debates, the Gettysburg Address, and other classics, but we seldom think of the years he spent learning to put an English sentence together. All the while, however, Lincoln was improving himself and winning elections. Historians say his early performances often matched his gangly, unkempt appearance. In defense of contemporary candidates who may slip or even lose their train of thought, Lincoln often spoke in long sentences that were absolutely undecipherable. I, for one, am glad he was forgiven.
If we want smooth, consider GOP primary candidate, Gov. John Huntsman. Obviously a quite decent and smart man, every sentence the former ambassador uttered was immaculate, yet he did not connect with voters as well as most other candidates did. Does this mean we don’t appreciate good English and eloquence? I suspect it means we simply value other things a bit more.
One of my best friends was deceased Kennesaw, Georgia city councilman Ben Robertson. Ben stuttered beyond belief, yet his 20 or so years of public service were such that during his last four races, the only word on his political signs was “Ben.” Somehow, smooth didn’t matter to voters. It was trumped by Ben’s service and true “performance,” absent of any concern for style.
Other examples abound. Calvin Coolidge, as a candidate and as President, hardly said enough to make any gaffes, reminding us that quiet, non-communicative people can make it to the top as well. Eisenhower was almost as quiet as Coolidge, but we knew what he did at Normandy, so we made him our leader. Behind a podium, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t exactly a Winston Churchill, but in his own words, “could slap backs real good.” I can swear that George W. Bush literally made up new words, but I voted for him because I believed he would keep us safe, which he did.
Of course the greatest arouser of them all is Barack Obama. His address to the Democratic National Convention was a rhetorical feat. He did project like Cicero, pause like Billy Graham, and connect like Ronald Reagan. The question is: Is rhetorical flourish enough or do we care more about content, ideas, and policy? The three upcoming debates between Obama and Romney, if allowed more substance than the primary ones, should help voters answer this. I predict that Obama will not fare so well without his tele-prompter, thereby leveling the rhetorical playing field.
So why the present horror over political candidates who slip or even forget their lines? After hearing the painful teleprompter reading of speeches at the two national conventions, some of us would welcome a genuine, human slip. Can we not see that the televised primary debates were not debates at all (they are TV), and that they are as far removed from the reality of, say, sitting with another head of state, as they can be? Being a false forum — because they are TV — they are a weak test of any candidate’s acumen, despite what our superficial television generation has come to believe.
One good thing came from the false primary debates, however: the questioners — the network pundits who love irrelevant questions — were questioned. Newt Gingrich called a couple of them out, and the “debate” audiences began to show their impatience with the “gotcha” questions that revealed nothing but the arrogance of the questioners.
The power of smooth, then, is negligible. Give me a country codger (or a Texas Governor or anyone else) who believes something and levels with you about his beliefs, and you can have all the silver tongues you desire.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.