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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 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 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
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 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
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 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT