Bubba is back. As a word man, I was most impressed at the Democratic National Convention by Bill Clinton’s skillful speech, much of it ad-libbed.
Even President Barack Obama seemed to suggest later that the former president did a better job of selling Obama than the current one does. “Somebody e-mailed me after his speech and said, ‘You need to appoint him Secretary of Explaining Stuff,’” Obama joked in New Hampshire. “I like that.”
In fact, as Seth Meyers observed on Saturday Night Live, we already have a job for that: It’s called “President.” Some presidents are better at that job than others are.
Much of Clinton’s success, I believe, comes not so much from the big words that he knows as from the little ones that he uses.
That observation was reinforced by Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a scholarly and theatrical Washington institution near the Supreme Court and Library of Congress.
Comparing the text of Clinton’s prepared remarks and ad-libs with those of Obama’s acceptance speech, Witmore told me that he noticed distinctive linguistic differences in their word choices:
Clinton tended to rely almost solely on the single-syllable, action-oriented words that come from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon roots of English. Obama more often employed longer and more nuanced Latin-rooted words that the French brought to English with the Norman Conquest in 1066.
“Today you could say that almost all of our political rhetoric,” said Witmore, who earned his Ph.D. in rhetoric, “comes from two books from the 16th and 17th centuries: the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.”
As a result, he said, “political speech comes to us in two speeds.” Latin and its derivative Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) became the English spoken mainly by elites in the law, bureaucracy and intelligentsia. Short action-oriented Anglo-Saxon words with hard consonants (“fighting,” “eating,” “hiking ... ”) became the day-to-day way that common people talk.
That helps to explain why, rock ’n’ roll lyrics don’t tolerate Latinate words, Witmore pointed out. He offered the Rolling Stones refrain “I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion” as a notable exception. The hard-driving rhythm of that hit breaks the Latinate flow of the word “satisfaction” into Saxon-like bits. Yet, the word does not rhyme with anything except, at one point, the memorably inserted “girly action.” Ah, yes, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, but I like it.
For similar drama in political speech, Witmore said, “you often will hear the speaker launch into a stream of longer impressive Latinate words, then abruptly shut it down with short, Anglo Saxon words.”
One widely quoted example came in Clinton’s repudiation of Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s charge that Obama cut Medicare’s budget to help pay for Obamacare. In fact, Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, proposed exactly the same cost-savings in his own budget plan, said Clinton. Then in a very Anglo-Saxon ad-lib, Clinton added, “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
His audience erupted with cheers and laughter, perhaps mentally hearing another Anglo-Saxonism that is more often used than “brass” but less-suitable-for-prime-time television.
Obama, by contrast, seems more often to mix the Anglo-Saxonisms with the Romance, which is the language of nuance. He even had the audacity to speak a word of French in his acceptance speech: He has never been more hopeful about America, he said, “Not because I’m naive about the magnitude of our challenges. I’m hopeful because of you.”
As good as he gets, Obama’s presentation style tends to speak from a loftier perch of oratory than Clinton. Bubba’s “freestyling” — as hip-hoppers describe his ad-libbing — sounds like he is having a nose-to-nose conversation with you, even when there are 15,000 other people in the room. That’s a gift every politician wants.
Gallup found 43 percent of all respondents rated Obama’s speech as “good” or “excellent,” compared to 38 percent for Romney’s speech. But both fell short of Clinton’s 56 percent — which fell just short of Gallup’s all-time record of 58 percent, which ironically was achieved by Obama in 2008.
If Obama’s post-convention bump was largely a “Clinton bounce,” a lot of credit goes to a special Clintonian skill: He makes little words mean a lot.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.