The Lost Art of Speaking Clearly

Why we may never again have truly great speakers in our midst.

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.

But our politicians today don’t.  In China this week, Vice President Joe Biden made a fool of himself on precisely this issue (when he wasn’t too busy making a fool of himself for endorsing forced abortion and communism).  When an unfortunate student at Sichuan University asked Biden about the importance of public speaking, Biden responded thusly: “Let me order my thoughts here to make this as brief as I can.”  He then proceeded to speak for four full minutes, using over 800 words.  His longest sentence was almost 70 words and as inarticulate as humanly possible:

“And so language, the ability not only to master the ability to put your ideas into words succinctly on a platform to communicate ideas to your own people, it is even more impressive when you have the capacity to do that and communicate your ideas, especially as future business and political and moral leaders of the world in the language of the people to whom you are speaking.”

No one could accuse this advocate of succinct language of actually being succinct.

The question is: why?  Why is it that our greatest leaders have been able to encapsulate in as few words as possible some of the grandest thoughts man has ever considered?  Why is it that today’s leaders seem to hem and haw, slithering in serpentine fashion from subject to verb and back again without any sense of grammar or even consistency?  Why is it that so many of our politicians, as William McAdoo said of Warren G. Harding, leave “the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork”?

Perhaps it is because we are so idea poor.  Our best speakers have typically been those with real ideas to promulgate.  Lincoln was not merely a great speechwriter, he was a great thinker; so too was Jefferson; so too was Washington; so too was Martin Luther King, Jr.  Obama is not a great thinker.  He is a technocrat.  And technocrats believe, like your third grade teacher, that the longer an essay is, the better it is.  The more of a technocratic society we become, the worse the chance that we will ever again have truly great speakers in our midst.