Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speaks English in the way many Americans do, excitedly and often haltingly. Called on to focus, she gushes. Asked to elaborate, she dissembles. Hectored for specifics, she simpers.
Gush is a word most Americans know.
Dissemble and simper are decidedly less common.
Which is why it’s misleading to deconstruct Palin’s candidacy using her linguistic bobbles and lollygagging non-sequiturs. Her shortcomings amuse and bemuse followers of language, a tribe onetime Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled “nattering nabobs of negativity” (credit then-speechwriter Bill Safire for the phrase), but their skepticism is predictable and self-fulfilling.
The lampoonable Palin fits where stock markets can’t. She even elicits one-upmanship among her bashers.
Maureen Dowd complained of “pompom patois and sing-songy jingoism”; if “might once made right,” wrote Richard Cohen, “Now a wink does.”; “To vote in protest for McCain/Palin,” suggested Gloria Steinen, “would be like saying, ‘Somebody stole my shoes, so I’ll amputate my legs'”; “I’m sorry, Governor Palin,” lectured Briton Roger Cohen, “words matter.”
Oral tradition varies. Rhetoric helps populists and sages, forging a mystical terrain between preacher and preached to that can be folksy or grand, or both.
Eloquence is different. Brewed from intelligence, wit and persuasion, it’s hard to assign. Bill Clinton was eloquent and preacher-like, a switch-hitting gift that made him endearing or enraging. Barack Obama is significantly different. He broadcasts a cooler intelligence, measured and conversational.
The last four Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama, have all been lucid and occasionally highbrow products of the American ivory tower. Each spoke an urbane language that big-city journalists and pundits could associate with whatever their political preference.
George W. Bush dented that model. His NASCAR speech fractured all things presidential. That was fine as an amiably outclassed outsider, but his victory shoved writers toward a man whose verbal shortcomings were rationalized and protected by shark-like advisers inclined to articulate policy in private.
The 2001 terrorist attacks gave Bush wide berth. His speech became the hallmark of a mash-mouthed aftermath that grimly milked street cred from snappy belligerence. His bluntness fed those inside and outside government who associated toughness with slogan-rich terseness.
But when Bush’s bluntness was exposed as deceit-laden, writers felt fooled and foolish. Misstatements tolerated in the name of patriotism were seen suddenly to reflect systematic incoherence and bad faith. The façade fell apart. Language mattered again.
This checkered history bears remembering when it comes to judging the response to the notably under-qualified Palin. She was essentially hand-delivered into a minefield. Residual resentment against Bush fell into her Republican lap. She was always a gaffe away from pent-up rage. She swiftly provided several. Her wild glibness unleashed the avenging not of four weeks but eight years.
Still, much of the sentiment against her arose among those paid to complete sentences and punch holes in political story lines (including comedy teams). That Palin co-opted parody by punching her own holes left some critics speechless. It’s a role she seems at times to actually relish, wearing her media handicap with kooky grace and meeting it with reactionary self-righteousness.
Her cheek-and-cheer has some foundation. While she and McCain are White House long-shots (at least if truly black markets have their way), she correctly assumes that her half-baked palaver (the going liberal word) is tastier, or at the very least more agreeable to look at, than Obama’s richer pudding.
Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador the United States, shrewdly assessed Obama’s vulnerable nobility in dispatch to Downing Street last summer. Labeling him an elitist was “not entirely unfair,” said Sheinwald, because his “mindset” was “highly-educated and upper middle class.” “The main impression is of someone who was finding his feet, and then got diverted by his presidential ambitions.”
This in a nutshell formulates the tenets of the Palin Chasm, which is the measure of the disparity between Obama’s stylish conversation with the nation and the nation’s daily conversation with itself. Palin’s maligned jabber better represents the latter.
Ignorance is rarely charming when leadership is at stake, and Palin’s meanderings are often ignorant. But assailing her shortcomings presumes the violation of an existing and coherent national language. Such a language, if ever it flourished, has been pre-empted by the stirrings of reality television and the You-Internet. Transmission trumps structure. Hysteria informs candor. In the thrall of arousal, humiliation and redemption, suburban society tends toward blurting. As much as Palin might embarrass columnists and educators (and capable women), she’s a legitimate product of a nation sustained by jargon.
Also intriguing is Palin’s parental component. Hockey and soccer moms are moms first. Many American adults use children as muses to keep aging at bay. They adopt reductive language to assert their presence in a mainstream that no longer contains them. Palin, mother of five, is one of millions of near-middle aged parents amid fecund adolescents. Asked recently whether she considered Obama dishonest, she replied as a teen might: “I’m not saying he’s dishonest, but in terms of judgment, in terms of being able to answer a question forthrightly, it has two different parts to this. The judgment and the truthfulness and just being able to answer very candidly a simple question about when did you know him, how did you know him, is there still — has there been an association continued since ’02 or ’05, I know I’ve read a couple different stories. I think it’s relevant.”
The muddled wording was more distracted than absurd, teen-style bewilderment filtered through self-consciousness and stutteringly exhaled.
Yet no matter how stridently middle-aged columnists tease “pom-pom patois” and “sing-songy jingoism,” Palin’s roughly-sketched notes are mall Muzak to Obama’s Gregorian chant. The same with Palin’s provincial pedigree. Most Americans don’t have passports. Many get to spring break Mexico but never to Canada (forget Europe and Asia). The majority form serious and genuine opinions based on tidbits they pick up from cable television and the Internet, or what their friends and lovers tell them. Palin’s unexceptional command of complexity and her trouble with extrapolation is standard fare (and not just among those “with aboveground swimming pools,” as Richard Cohen suggests). Her Alaskan syntax is no more or less amusing than an Alabama drawl, except that the latter long ago lost its comic sheen.
Palin, says Dowd, makes the “middle class sound like it has its own ZIP code.” Not a ZIP code perhaps, but certainly a dialect based on disconnected snippets assembled into a chaotic vernacular top-heavy with invective. Sentences and thoughts are rarely completed. Hints and fill-ins that pass for assertion, as in “I totally understand,” suffice. America has no one millennial voice. Palin’s brunette-as-blonde moments mimic a population whose grasp of and respect for articulateness has no backbone. Many watch and listen without learning to speak.
To his “Sorry, Governor Palin, words matter” admonishment — Palin had used “Never Again” lightly — Roger Cohen added: “Life has its solemn lessons. ‘Never Again’ is a hallowed phrase. It’s applicable not to the loss of a mortgage, but to the Holocaust and genocide.” He’s right of course, but he also misses the point. Applicability is passé. So is appropriateness. It’s what comes out of your mouth first. It’s what you think you maybe have to say. That, and not the appropriateness of how you say it, sets the tone.