They should talk straight

Published 11:03 am Monday, February 9, 2009

One thing I have never heard after any political campaign is that someone misses the lovely campaign speeches and delightful ads.

On the contrary, I hear such complaints as “sick and tired” and “fed up with it.” I, however, am as much disgusted with the bad English employed by candidates. Public figures who intentionally misuse English as a rhetorical gimmick to seem populist not only speak dishonestly but insult the populace with unconscionable condescension.

The political language isn’t so much bad as it is disingenuous. We hear graduates of top-ranking universities talking as if they were grade school drop-outs. It isn’t they don’t know better or that this is their native language. It is, rather, that they talk down to voters in order to sound like “one of them” (or, is it, “one of ‘em?”). I find George W. Bush to be one of the most boring and uninteresting public speakers ever in the White House. I didn’t mind John Kennedy’s Boston accent or Jimmy Carter’s Georgia drawl, because these are native to the individual and how they always talk—nothing put-on about them.

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Bush, however, is always “talk’n” and “say’n.” The only “ing” from him are in words such as “sling.” Except when he’s shouting (which was usual in the campaign), President Barack Obama I find to be a delightful public speaker. Yet, even he is regularly “gonna” and “woulda.” (Did anyone mention Sarah Palin? You’re darn right!) Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t bad at all, but he sounded more like the army general he was most of his life than the university president he was briefly.

Richard Nixon used English properly—except when employing obscenities (which, apparently, was more often than we had thought). Bill Clinton was also not bad—when he knew what the meaning of “is” is. Now, Adlai Stevenson was the presidential candidate to whom I enjoyed listening. He was literate and so spoke.

What bothers me is not only the aesthetics, or lack thereof, but the issue of honesty. One can but wonder if a politician pretends language, what else is pretended?

They seem to think what the voters want is someone just like them. However, this is precisely what we do not need in national leadership. We need someone more knowledgeable, skillful, and wise than most of us. Yet, their political feel might be accurate, because of what has happened in most elections. We got what we asked for—and deserved it for asking.

Many people are in public positions that not only require clear communication but an obligation to set examples, including correct language. The grammatical errors in the media are usually consequent to carelessness, as so with teachers. While I challenge these to carefulness, my disappointment here is with intentional misuse of language for political gain.

Not only politicians are guilty of language affected for political effect rather than clear and forthright communication. Arguably, the worst offenders are advertising people who will corrupt anything to sell. You can’t sell a “home,” for instance, just a house, and what is professional about “professional strength car food” They do it in self-reference with the more dignified-sounding “marketing.” The technical difference is exploited only for effect.

How about “ministers of the Word” Some intentionally corrupt their language to sound like “one of the guys.” We’re all sinners, so why not sound like sinners? If so, “from whence cometh our salvation?” Suffice it to say language must communicate truth truthfully. If it does not, how can we learn the truth? We need ministry from transparent persons, not clowns and actors.

Affectation is disrespected in those who “put on airs,” but it works downward as well. All affectation is dishonest, because it attempts to deceive people into thinking someone is other than who he is.

We need competent political and social leaders, people who are safe to follow.

Pretending, by language, to be as incompetent for the job as the rest of us cannot logically build confidence. We need leaders whose honesty in language demonstrates their honesty in performance of office.