The leading presidential candidates are well served by their speechwriters. In the three senators’ speeches, among those I’ve read, most of the text is pretty tight. I’ve been surprised by the amount of actual substance they manage to pack in, when they’re not poking at each other. Fresh content abounds—or the talented speechwriters make it seem fresh.
There are many ways to manipulate an audience’s emotions. The best way is to paint sharp word pictures that evoke clear images in the minds of the audience. The worst way is to talk about emotions.
If you want your audience to feel as you feel about the beauty of a mountain meadow, you don’t say, “The mountain meadow is beautiful. I feel very emotional about it.” You say, “In the crisp, clean air, you can almost see the needles of a pine tree on a distant peak. The colors vibrate like neon—velvety green grass, lanky coral poppies with blooms like bobbleheads in the breeze—and fat bees swim in a hazy honeysuckle scent…,” and so forth.
It’s unusual, among the candidates’ speeches I’ve read, to find what I call emotional flatulence. The following, from Senator Clinton’s speech at Hunter College, is a rare example of the bloated rhetoric that is symptomatic of verbal flatulence. I wish there were verbal Tums. We could all send her some.
(Note: This is reproduced as it appeared on the senator’s website, mechanical missteps and all.)
This campaign is not about a campaign, this campaign is not about a personality, this campaign is about hundreds of millions of Americans who are yearning for leadership again. People who across this country do the hard work that makes America work. I’ve spent most of my life helping people who are trying to make it…. The results that I’ve been part of producing for the last 35 years are rooted in my dreams for a better future. We all carry dreams in our hearts and we need to keep dreaming. Dreaming keeps us hopeful, it lifts our spirits, it sets our sights high. Without dreams you can’t aspire to be great but without action, we cannot turn those dreams into reality. I want you to fulfill your dreams and I want America to fulfill ours. It will take hard work and resolve and determination but there isn’t anything we can’t do once we set our minds to it. I intend, as your president, to make sure that America does fulfill all of our dreams.
This evening I examined one speech from each of the three leading presidential candidates’ websites. I compared the three documents for style, readability, substance, and other, more subtle, characteristics.
The evaluation was far from scientific or conclusive. For one thing, the speeches were presented to different types of audiences for different purposes. For another, my judgment is clouded by my strong preference for one of the candidates. And plucking one speech, more or less at random, off each candidate’s website can hardly be considered a fair basis for comparison.
Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my assessment:
And to those who think that the decline in American manufacturing is inevitable; or that manufacturing has no place in a 21st century economy; we say right here and right now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future. And that’s why we’ll modernize our steel industry, strengthen our entire domestic manufacturing base, and open as many markets as we can to American manufactured goods when I’m President.
Grade for substance: B
Grade for style: A
Grade for readability: A (2,760 words, 5% passive voice, 63 Flesch reading ease, 9th-grade reading level)
Overall, Senator Obama’s speech is the best of the three, hands down—and my approval doesn’t reflect my bias. Senator Obama is not my candidate of choice. Even so, there’s no denying that the speech is articulate, energetic, and upbeat. It’s well structured, with plenty of meat on its bones, and it contains very little opponent-bashing.
In fact, philosophy and politics aside, I have only one criticism of Senator Obama as a speaker. I had originally chosen another of the senator’s speeches to critique. In that speech, and to a lesser extent in the one selected, he refers to himself in the plural: “We say right here and now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future.”
Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as “Richard Nixon” and as “we” or “us,” as though there were several of him. Why do public figures do that? Inflated ego? Reluctance to assume individual responsibility? I don’t know, but I don’t quite trust the arrogance that use of the “royal we” suggests.
On the other hand, I have to give Senator Obama points for minimal use of the passive voice. Not only do passive-voice constructions lack clarity, they also imply evasion of responsibility, as in “Mistakes were made.”
If that authority is entrusted to me, I will use the veto as needed, and as the Founders intended. I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks. I will seek a constitutionally valid line-item veto to end the practice once and for all. I will lead across-the-board reforms in the federal tax code, removing myriad corporate tax loopholes that are costly, unfair, and inconsistent with a free-market economy.
Grade for substance: A
Grade for style: B
Grade for readability: B (4,137 words, 17% passive voice, 53 Flesch reading ease, 11th-grade reading level)
I chose the excerpt above because it illustrates the specificity of Senator McCain’s positions on the issues. Although the excerpt is a litany of “I wills,” the speech as a whole is not egocentric. (Senator Clinton actually wins the “me, me, me” championship, referring to herself more often than do either of her opponents.) Senator McCain mentions his opponents numerous times, generally to show how their views differ from his, not to chew them up and spit them out.
I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfill their God-given potential, and to build better lives for themselves and their children. That’s the kind of president I will be every day in the White House, whether the issue is health care or child care, foreign policy, or the future of our economy…. I am running for president because I believe in the promise of America and I believe in the power of the presidency to help fulfill that promise…. It’s what I have learned, experienced and intended, as best I could, throughout my life. I’ve had many opportunities. I’ve been blessed. And I understand that those blessings came from the hard work of my parents, my teachers, others in the village that surrounded and helped to nurture and raise me; my church, which helped to guide me; and, of course, the positive actions of my government that directly affected my life.
Grade for substance: B-
Grade for style: B-
Grade for readability: B- (4,013 words, 8% passive voice, 49 Flesch reading ease, 12th-grade reading level)
Senator Clinton’s speech has an off-the-cuff feel to it, and, if it was indeed extemporaneous, the senator deserves higher grades. I doubt, however, that there is much left to chance at this point in her campaign.
To her credit, Senator Clinton doesn’t even mention her opponents. Of course, that might be because she’s too busy talking about herself.
Strategically, Senator Clinton being the media-designated Nanny-State Candidate, it might be injudicious for her to make such a point of using “the power of the presidency… to solve the problems of Americans.” Just a few sentences later, she again refers to “the power of the presidency.” Unfortunately, she has just finished berating George W. Bush for abusing the power of the presidency, which raises doubts about her grasp of such nuances and their implications.
Senator Obama’s is the best speech, followed by Senator McCain’s and then by Senator Clinton’s. I’d rank their websites in the same order. Visiting Senator Clinton’s site, in particular, is a bit like going through an obstacle course where you have to jump through, climb over, and veer around all the solicitations for funds before you can get any actual information.
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