Friday 29 October 2004

Eloquence is overrated.

In a brilliant article in The Telegraph, Janet Daley writes:

Sitting through the final debate and the endless stump speeches in the "battleground states", it was overwhelmingly clear that George W Bush was inarticulate and right, and that John Kerry was articulate and wrong.

And you're not going to find a better summing-up of the differences between the two candidates than that.

Daley goes on to say:

Strictly speaking, Kerry is fluent rather than articulate - a good deal of what he says is so self-contradictory as to be technically meaningless, and the rest is incapable of substantiation.

But he talks without pauses or hesitation, his sentences are more or less grammatical, and they seem on superficial hearing to follow on from one another in some sort of order.

My theory is that, just as some people are too intelligent to be clever (Jimmy Carter springs to mind), Kerry is too eloquent to be articulate. He is very good at talking. He is so good at it, in fact, that he doesn't understand the power of talking less.

In Slate, Chris Suellentrop details Kerry's inability to simply read a speech:

The speeches are supposed to convince Americans of Kerry's fitness for the presidency, but a side effect has been to demonstrate how inept he is at delivering prepared remarks.

The campaign gives reporters the text of each of Kerry's speeches "as prepared for delivery," apparently to show how much Kerry diverges from them.


Kerry proves incapable of reading simple declarative sentences. He inserts dependent clauses and prepositional phrases until every sentence is a watery mess.

Here's one of many examples:

Kerry's Script: I believe we need a fresh start on health care in America. I believe we need a President who will fight for the great middle class and those struggling to join it. And with your help, I will be that kind of President.

Actual Kerry: I believe so deeply—and as I go around, Bob and Bill and I were talking about this coming over here from other places—that the hope that we're seeing in the eyes of our fellow Americans, folks like you who have come here today who know what's at stake in this race. This isn't about Democrat and Republican or ideology. This is about solving problems, real problems that make our country strong and help build community and take care of other human beings. I believe we need a fresh start on health care in America. I believe we need a President who's going to fight for the great middle class and those who really are struggling, even below minimum wage now. And they won't even raise it. With your help, ladies and gentlemen, I intend to be that kind of President who stands up and fights for the people who need the help.

Now, what strikes me about this is that Kerry is clearly demonstrating his intelligence and eloquence here. It's not perfectly fluent — he screws up the structure of one of the sentences — but he's ad-libbing, so give him a break. Overall, he's showing a good ability to improvise, to weave on-the-spot thoughts into the flow of the prepared statements: he's showing mental agility. In some of the examples (though certainly not that one), his improvised version is as good as or even better than the original — but only when you consider the segment alone. When you look at the whole speech, the effect of tens or hundreds of little improvements is to dilute its impact and, frankly, to wreck it. I'm sure Kerry's advisors and speech-writers have told him this, but I seriously doubt that he would ever believe them. This man cannot believe that, when it comes to his own strengths, less might be more.

Let me talk about musicianship for a moment.

When you go to see a band who are just starting out, chances are they'll sound really, really bad. Sometimes, this is because they haven't really got any good at their instruments yet, but it's often because of precisely the opposite problem: they're very, very good, highly technically accomplished musicians — and they want you to know it. It takes many years of practice and supreme confidence for any guitarist to do what B B King does: just play a couple of notes, quite slowly. Getting up on stage may be nerve-wracking, but getting up on stage and doing very little, or even nothing, is terrifying. Everyone's looking at you. Everyone's waiting for you to show them why you got on that stage, why they should bother watching you. To stare calmly back at them, doing nothing at all, takes gut-wrenching reserves of self-confidence. It took me years of gigging before I could manage it.

John Kerry is scared.

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