Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Want to be president? Talk folksy

By John McWhorter, Special to CNN
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
Many Americans may think that Mitt Romney's speaking style is how a commander in chief should talk, says John McWhorter, a linguist and political commentator, but that perception -- informed by memories of FDR, JFK and Martin Sheen's President Bartlett on "West Wing" -- is now out of step with what really stirs people in their guts about public figures. Many Americans may think that Mitt Romney's speaking style is how a commander in chief should talk, says John McWhorter, a linguist and political commentator, but that perception -- informed by memories of FDR, JFK and Martin Sheen's President Bartlett on "West Wing" -- is now out of step with what really stirs people in their guts about public figures.
HIDE CAPTION
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
Presidential linguistics
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney's linguistic culture is increasingly becoming obsolete, says John McWhorter
  • Our era prefers a folksier voice in our candidates for high office, McWhorter says
  • McWhorter: As a black American, Barack Obama comes to folksy cadence naturally
  • For decades, the warmer speaker has won the election, says McWhorter

Editor's note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University, is contributing editor for The New Republic and a columnist for The New York Daily News. His latest book is "What Language Is (and What It Isn't and What It Could Be)."

(CNN) -- If language has anything to do with winning an election -- and it does (see below) -- we don't need recent news that Obama is ahead in key swing states to teach us who's going to be president for the next four years. The way Obama speaks and the way his campaign uses language will go a long way in warming the hearts of those who vote more on the basis of the gut than on policy details or preset commitments.

Romney's recent surmises on how cultural differences have determined the differing fates of Israel and the Palestinians have an analogue here. Romney and Obama come from different linguistic cultures, and unfortunately for Romney, his is increasingly obsolete.

Romney not only looks but talks "like a president." Few consider Obama's speaking style un-presidential either, but Romney's speaking style, that of the airline pilot or the man in the GPS saying "Turn right," is even more of what we think of as how the commander in chief talks.

However, that vision -- informed by memories of FDR, JFK, and Martin Sheen's President Bartlett on "The West Wing" -- is now out of step with what really stirs people in their guts about public figures. The cool, WASP-y voice now has an archaic ring to it, redolent of what Boomers long ago dismissed as the Establishment.

John McWhorter
John McWhorter

Our era prefers a folksier voice, in real life, in movies, in music and even in our candidates for high office. This is partly due to the egalitarian preferences that the 1960s counterculture left in its wake, and partly that nonstop television and web coverage simulates intimacy. Even Hillary Clinton tried to fake a Joe Sixpack cadence speaking to working-class white audiences in 2008, in a way that neither FDR nor JFK would have dreamed of trying to pull off.

Obama, however, comes to folksy cadence naturally. It's part of his speech repertoire as a black American. Some think him "fake" when sounding preacherly in speeches to the NAACP, but they miss that Obama is doing just what most black Americans do 24/7, sliding between two ways of talking: vanilla and chocolate. Romney's stuck with the vanilla, while Obama even mixes in a bit of chocolate in mainstream speeches.

As such, he has a warmer speech presence. His very intonation of "Yes, we can!" was indicative: it would have sounded hollow in the mouths of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards and downright pathetic from John McCain. His repeated incantations of "Pass this bill" in his address to Congress last September made his address sound almost like a church sermon. The approachability of his cadence makes even the swipes he takes at Republicans sound less barbed than they would from Romney.

We hear often that the taller candidate always wins. It's also true that for decades, the warmer speaker has. George W. Bush's Texan inflections made both Al Gore and John Kerry sound like schoolteachers. Bill Clinton's light, scratchy drawl created an instant approachability that made Bush the father sound like a patrician and Bob Dole like the Viagra pitchman he eventually became.

Yet, even Bush the father sounded approachable and "nice" -- recall Dana Carvey's send-up -- compared with Michael Dukakis' beige speaking style. Ronald Reagan, smiling with a dusting of wry, sounded like your grandfather. Jimmy Carter, despite the Georgia accent, always sounded a bit sad and sanctimonious, while Walter Mondale sounded like your accountant.

The language gulf between Obama and Romney is even on view on their websites. Romney's, as I write, is bedecked with moral responsibility and learn the truth, negatives like Obama Isn't Working, and the petulant You did build that. Meanwhile, Obama's site gives us snapshot, faces, listen up, loving, and chocolate (all of which also could be taken as evoking the Obamas as a family!).

To voters on the fence, what will appeal more: truth and responsibility or snapshots and chocolate? The answer is clear. In an ideal world for Romney, his media coaching would include Henry Higgins-style speech lessons from Chris Rock or Louis C.K.

Short of that, a presidential candidate who sounds like your father's history teacher is dragging along quite the linguistic ball and chain.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John McWhorter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT