The Lost Art of Speaking Clearly

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After President Bush’s supposed rhetorical stumblings, bumblings, and mumblings, President Barack Obama was supposed to provide us with a dose of good old-fashioned verbal class and polish.  When he opened his mouth, pearls of mellifluous wisdom were supposed to come tumbling out, astonishing us with their beauty and clarity.  During the 2008 campaign, Professor Ronald Greene of the University of Minnesota gushed, “He’s doing long speeches and he’s demanding our attention.  He will truly be a president who understands the power of oratory … Some call it cool or aloof, but he gives off a sense of standing.  It’s very presidential.”  Professor Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania seconded the motion, praising Obama’s lyrical use of the phrase “yes we can.”  “There’s a certain amount of repetition,” Liberman explained, “the ‘Yes We Can’ theme – that allows this kind of weaving of vocal lines … It was written like a song, but not performed like a song.”

And yet we are not inspired.  Those lovely teleprompter cadences that were supposed to turn the world on its ear have not done so.  Instead, we are all tired of President Obama’s familiar speech patterns and drowsy intonation, punctuated by a rapid change in pacing at the ends of sentences: “Hey … diddle … diddle … the cat — and the fiddle … the cow … jumpedoverthemoon!”  More troubling, he uses phrases that spell out in crystalline purity his verbal incompetence.  “Let me be clear” – implying that everything else he has said has not been clear.  “Make no mistake” – implying that without his further clarification, we would have made a mistake.

More than even Obama’s odd verbal tics, the length of his speeches is purely soporific.  His most recent State of the Union Address ran nearly 7,000 words.  That’s longer than the entire Constitution of the United States — by nearly 2,500 words.  It’s more than four times the length of JFK’s First Inaugural Address – the famous “ask not what your country can do for you” speech.

Obama’s bizarre speech to Congress on health care in 2009 ran over 5,400 words.  That’s longer than President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, Second Inaugural Address, and the Gettysburg Address combined.

Now, length is sometimes worthwhile.  President George Washington’s Farewell Address ran just over 6,000 words; then-candidate Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech ran almost 8,000 words.  But such length is a rarity in American politics, as it should be.  As humorist Tom Lehrer put it, “If a person feels he can’t communicate, the least he can do is shut up about it.

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  • Alexander Gofen

    What a strange approach: to evaluate a pure eloquence of speeches without even mentioning what ideas are being promoted… Hey, Hitler was a great speaker, Trotsky – too.

    The degradation of the rhetoric skills so noticeable in the recent "leaders" has another root cause…

    It's because they are disingenuous liars, stupid.
    It's because their speeches is nothing but inconsistent demagoguery!
    It's because they are lying, maneuvering, in attempts to promote things which cannot withstand any honest scrutiny.

    Our modern demagogues illustrate the sketch (*) overplaying the Socrates motto "The truth emerges in discussions". As the sketch goes,

    "There are kinds of truth for which discussions are … harmful".

    Sure enough, such kinds of "truth" abounded among the Soviet doctrines, and therefore those issues were absolute taboo indeed. And now it is America which degenerated to that level in a process of "unaided" descent to the human baseness.

    (*) The famous satirist Zhvanetsky of the former USSR

  • theleastthreat

    My wife and I were just talking about this yesterday, when she was flipping through the channels and stopped on CSPAN where a Black Caucus panel was at Emory University in Atlanta. The moderator asked a question about how were unemployed black people going to find employment in a global economy. Maxine Waters jumped in with a lengthy reply that wasn't an answer. Even before she was finished, my wife and I were asking each other what any of Water's address had to do with answering the question. When Ms Water's had finished raining words out of her mouth, she was, of course, applauded.

  • Chezwick_mac

    When I hear Obama insist on the need to be fiscally responsible…after adding 5 $trillion in debt over 3 years, I realize that what the man says means absolutely nothing…that on any given day, his words may be COMPLETELY incongruous with his actions.

    It's utterly mystifying that anyone still takes him seriously.

  • Flipside

    Lost art? Did Favreau, Frankel and Rhodes all die in a plane crash?

  • Dispozadaburka


  • Dispozadaburka

    Obama's speeches are written with was is termed the
    It refers to the idea that everyone is on average- six steps away,
    by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of
    "a friend of a friend" " statements can be made on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer. It was orginally set out by Frigyes Kirinthy and popularized by a play written by John Guare. Look it up on Wikipedia

  • old white guy

    speech today is used to obscure not clarify.

  • sedoanman

    "The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." — George Orwell, 1946 Essay, “Politics and the English Language”

  • Resisitanceisfutile

    Not to rain on the MLK parade, I recall a whole deal about this by (?) Theodore Pappas (?) which laid out that King was a plagiarist. Great speaker with the 1960's version of a Teleprompter, but I have seen no real evidence of rhetorical genius. I leave myself open here to be corrected on this. On another note, I am reading Ben Shapiro's book which is not helping with my blood pressure! I never really watched most of the TV shows he examines, but I always believed that Archie Bunker was right in almost everything except his tortured grammar.

  • trickyblain

    Thanks for the 822 words that could have been summed up by just telling us you don't care for Obama.

  • StephenD

    I recall from long ago school days being taught that Lincoln once asked of it replied that he could write a 2 hour speech in 20 minutes and a 20 minute speech would take him at least 2 hours. It takes effort to be precise, clear and succinct. Long-windedness evidences carelessness. I give you…Obama.

  • FlyanSosser

    Yes, the education arm of Affirmative-Action has caused more than its fair share of damage to the English language over the years. This damage to the English language has in turn wreaked havoc with everything related to the English language. More people can speak and read and write rap than can speak and read and write English. I wonder if this is all by accident. Plus, I wonder why we have to press number 1 for English? How come the Founding Fathers didn't write in Spanish?

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