For those of us who observed first hand the Demosthenes of modern American presidents in action between 1989 and 1993, the very phrase has one quivering with laughter. No one, surely, could ever replace George Herbert Walker Bush's way with syntax, which could turn any public appearance into Saturday Night Live. Certainly not Bill Clinton, who speaks in textbook sentences with a recognisable beginning, middle and end, who forces no metaphor, whose chain of thought is quite maddeningly clear. But three and a half years on, happy days are here again. I refer to the dawning era of Dolespeak.
At first glance the dry-as-dust, soon-to-be ex-senator from Kansas is a poor substitute. No one, after all, could match Bush in full flow: on the economy ("coming off a pinnacle, so to speak, of low unemployment"), or musing about the endangered Pacific Spotted Owl ("we want to see the little furry-feathery guy protected, and all of that") or the burdens of high office ("Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. We are blessed. So don't feel sorry for - don't cry for me, Argentina ...").
And those three specimens are taken from just a single morning of campaigning in New Hampshire, on 15 January 1992, by a president accused of paying no attention to America's domestic ills, that will be known to devotees forever as "Message: I Care" day. Bush's endorsement of Bob Dole last March was a small gem too, praising the candidate's "mature leadership and character, and things of that nature". Among those "things", eloquence does not feature.
If Bush's problem was too many words, too many half-finished thoughts and weird non-sequiturs, Dole's is the opposite. The man basically hates talking, and is profoundly suspicious of anyone who enjoys it - hence his visible discomfort alongside babblers like Newt Gingrich. But the basic failing of both Bush and Dole is identical: an inability to articulate what passes through the brain. With Bush the result was dicombobulated goofiness. With Dole it is a terse, tongue-tied verbal shorthand.
Dole diction is a law unto itself. Syllables, indeed entire words, are swallowed, lost in truncated phrases fired out in short rasping salvos. They describe how Bob Dole as "Prez'dent" would reduce the "deaf-sit," assuming those Democratic "sennas" (senators) would let him. Like Bush, he is acutely vision-challenged.
What's it all about? In his speeches, he answers the question thus: "This election's 'bout 'Merica. It's 'bout the future. Values. Decency.' Bout makin' 'Merica great again." Often the litany ends with his trademark sign-off, "whatever", Dole's peculiar way of terminating a chain of thought, or a conversation he doesn't want to continue. "Just gonna keep on going. Whatever."
The modest Midwesterner further horrifies his speechwriters with his fondness for referring to himself in the third person, a habit shared by Julius Caesar in his histories and modern black gang toughs on the streets of US cities. Not "My position is
But do not be overhasty in writing off Bob Dole in this autumn's three presidential debates against the super-smooth, super-articulate Bill Clinton. For one thing, he has acquired a new speechwriter, the novelist Mark Helprin, who produced the gloriously sappy speech with which Dole announced his resignation from the Senate last week. "As summer nears, I will seek the bright light and open spaces of this beautiful country and will ask for the wise counsel of its people, from the sea coasts of Maine and California to the old railroad towns in the Midwest, to the verdant South ..." Pure poetry for the rest of us, but you could almost hear Dole wincing as he spoke it - who writes this mush? But there was hardly a dry eye in the house. And, as Bob Dole would say, that's what it's all about.
Second, there's his accent. Bush's preppy pseudo-Texan fooled no one. But Dole is an authentic product of the prairies, speaking the "North Midland" dialect of the US heartlands. Language scientists have found that of all the important dialects and accents, it is the one that Americans relate to and trust the most - more certainly than the gushing Bubba-speak now emanating from the White House. But to exploit this asset properly, Dole must find something interesting to say. In other words, George Bush's pesky old "vision thing". At which point, a growly shade descends by my ear. "Workin' on it," it mutters. Whatever.Reuse content