Want to be president? Talk folksy

Story highlights

Mitt Romney's linguistic culture is increasingly becoming obsolete, says John McWhorter

Our era prefers a folksier voice in our candidates for high office, McWhorter says

McWhorter: As a black American, Barack Obama comes to folksy cadence naturally

For decades, the warmer speaker has won the election, says McWhorter

Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University, is contributing editor for The New Republic and a columnist for The New York Daily News. His latest book is “What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be).”

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If language has anything to do with winning an election – and it does (see below) – we don’t need recent news that Obama is ahead in key swing states to teach us who’s going to be president for the next four years. The way Obama speaks and the way his campaign uses language will go a long way in warming the hearts of those who vote more on the basis of the gut than on policy details or preset commitments.

Romney’s recent surmises on how cultural differences have determined the differing fates of Israel and the Palestinians have an analogue here. Romney and Obama come from different linguistic cultures, and unfortunately for Romney, his is increasingly obsolete.

Romney not only looks but talks “like a president.” Few consider Obama’s speaking style un-presidential either, but Romney’s speaking style, that of the airline pilot or the man in the GPS saying “Turn right,” is even more of what we think of as how the commander in chief talks.

However, that vision – informed by memories of FDR, JFK, and Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett on “The West Wing” – is now out of step with what really stirs people in their guts about public figures. The cool, WASP-y voice now has an archaic ring to it, redolent of what Boomers long ago dismissed as the Establishment.

John McWhorter

Our era prefers a folksier voice, in real life, in movies, in music and even in our candidates for high office. This is partly due to the egalitarian preferences that the 1960s counterculture left in its wake, and partly that nonstop television and web coverage simulates intimacy. Even Hillary Clinton tried to fake a Joe Sixpack cadence speaking to working-class white audiences in 2008, in a way that neither FDR nor JFK would have dreamed of trying to pull off.

Obama, however, comes to folksy cadence naturally. It’s part of his speech repertoire as a black American. Some think him “fake” when sounding preacherly in speeches to the NAACP, but they miss that Obama is doing just what most black Americans do 24/7, sliding between two ways of talking: vanilla and chocolate. Romney’s stuck with the vanilla, while Obama even mixes in a bit of chocolate in mainstream speeches.

As such, he has a warmer speech presence. His very intonation of “Yes, we can!” was indicative: it would have sounded hollow in the mouths of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards and downright pathetic from John McCain. His repeated incantations of “Pass this bill” in his address to Congress last September made his address sound almost like a church sermon. The approachability of his cadence makes even the swipes he takes at Republicans sound less barbed than they would from Romney.

We hear often that the taller candidate always wins. It’s also true that for decades, the warmer speaker has. George W. Bush’s Texan inflections made both Al Gore and John Kerry sound like schoolteachers. Bill Clinton’s light, scratchy drawl created an instant approachability that made Bush the father sound like a patrician and Bob Dole like the Viagra pitchman he eventually became.

Yet, even Bush the father sounded approachable and “nice” – recall Dana Carvey’s send-up – compared with Michael Dukakis’ beige speaking style. Ronald Reagan, smiling with a dusting of wry, sounded like your grandfather. Jimmy Carter, despite the Georgia accent, always sounded a bit sad and sanctimonious, while Walter Mondale sounded like your accountant.

The language gulf between Obama and Romney is even on view on their websites. Romney’s, as I write, is bedecked with moral responsibility and learn the truth, negatives like Obama Isn’t Working, and the petulant You did build that. Meanwhile, Obama’s site gives us snapshot, faces, listen up, loving, and chocolate (all of which also could be taken as evoking the Obamas as a family!).

To voters on the fence, what will appeal more: truth and responsibility or snapshots and chocolate? The answer is clear. In an ideal world for Romney, his media coaching would include Henry Higgins-style speech lessons from Chris Rock or Louis C.K.

Short of that, a presidential candidate who sounds like your father’s history teacher is dragging along quite the linguistic ball and chain.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John McWhorter.