Bill Clinton's Secret: Make Little Words Matter
Bubba is back. As a word man, I was most impressed at the
In fact, as
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
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-and-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-and-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,
One widely quoted example came in Clinton's repudiation of Republican nominee
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.
Read the latest political news.
- A Memo to Mitt and Ann Romney
- Mitt Romney's Biggest Problem is His Own Party
- Mitt Romney Can Win By Doing One Thing
- Mitt Romney on the Spot
- Presidential Debates Present Opportunity and Peril for Mitt Romney
- The Presidential Debate: Look for the Plans, Not the Puns
- His Campaign Sliding, Mitt Romney Must Deliver in Debate
- The 'Self-Made' Hallucination of America's Rich
- Why Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are Going Down
- Four Reasons Why Mitt Romney Might Still Win
- America Needs Good Refs -- On the Gridiron and in Politics
- How the GOP Protects Its Falsehoods
- 2012 Election Could Mirror 1980 Race
- A GOP Civil War Simmers
- Mitt Romney Missed Big Chance with Latino Voters
- Mitt Romney's Losing Bid to Win the Latino Vote
- Does Political Discourse Need Geneva Conventions?
- Another Episode in Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy Follies
- Team Romney Doubles Down
- In Defense of the 47 Percent
- The High Cost of Mitt Romney's Candor
- It was a privilege, Mitt Romney
- The Obama Hare and Romney the Tortoise
- An American Shame that Both Candidates Ignore
- Revisiting Wilson's 'Truly Disadvantaged'
- The Poor: America's Forgotten Swing Voters
- Pragmatic Racism
- Mitt Romney's Taxes: Who Cares?
- Waffling on Obamacare will Not Help Mitt Romney
- Why They Call Bill Clinton 'Big Dog'
- Bill Clinton's Secret: Make Little Words Matter
- Bill Clinton Delivers
- Forward to What, Democrats?
- The New Obama Shows Muscle
- Words of Wisdom from a Nun
- Likable Mitt Romney
- Mitt Romney Misjudges Voters
- Mitt Romney's Troubling Pattern
- Mitt Romney's Party -- Checks OK, iPhones Not
- Distractions and Diversions
- The Self-Immolation of Mitt Romney
- The Latest Battle in the War on Voting
- Better Off Today? Don't Ask
- What has Obama Learned?
- Obama Sells Old Ideas as New
- Let George W Bush Be
- Do We Want This Foolish Man?
- Poor Visibility
- Paul Ryan Runs Into the Truth
- Team Romney's War Against Facts
- Both Parties Go to Extremes
- Candidates Have De-Emphasized Foreign Affairs
- Campaign 2012 in a Nutshell: Wrong Ideas vs No Ideas
- Memo to GOP: Demography is Destiny
- Tribe of Liberty
- The Price of Freedom
- Paul Ryan Calling the Kettle Black with Medicare Scare Tactics
- House of Representatives Armed with Irony
- Obama Leads Romney in Post-Conventions Poll
- Character, Policy and the Selection of Leaders
- The Politicization of Violence
- The Selling of American Democracy: The Perfect Storm
- Losing Latino Votes
- The Party is Over: Longtime GOPer Dissects Modern Political Landscape
- Paul Ryan's Faux Populism
- Rise Up, Middle Class, Rise Up!
- A Modest Proposal: Three Weeks of Paid Vacation
- The Paul Ryan Choice
Bill Clinton's Secret: Make Little Words Matter | Politics
(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc