Signifying Something

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There may be only 12 plots, and Shakespeare may have written all of them, but playwrights still abound because what you say is secondary to how you say it. If "all the world's a stage," politicians are very much a part of it. How they say something can rouse support and make them credible, or it can lower enthusiasm and inspire distrust. As it is with actors, peronal qualities do not affect all listeners in the same way. No one would have bet that Kansas farmers would identify with a plutocrat like George Bush. But something about the way he spoke convinced them he was one of them, so they trusted him. That same voice they found so appealing had others hitting the "mute."

In some arenas, people may judge you by your vocabulary, but in politics, an impressive vocabulary and a smooth voice can be liabilities.  Kansans aren't the only ones that vote for who they trust. The "there's something about him I trust" kind of trust. If the better speaker always won, the coming election would be no contest. Barack Obama is charismatic and articulate. Those qualities, however, raise a trust issue, even in his own party. He speaks so well that he raises expectations that often clash with political realities. He is the voice of reason in what we know is a very unreasonable world.

Mitt Romney is not charismatic. Even among those who will vote for him, a word that often comes up is "inauthentic." And yet, there are those who call him energetic and upbeat. Go figure. To one, whatever he might be trying to say gets lost in his wooden delivery, To the other, his doggedness is reassuringly recognizable, the voice of what they want to hear and are used to hearing. The voice of a classic politician.

How one speaks hopefully will not decide this election, but when a voice becomes indistinguishable from message, it just might. I've read that Lincoln had a high-keyed, unpleasant voice. But those who heard him knew where he stood. When messages are muddled, however, and issues complex, people will lean toward something that resonates with them, perhaps a voice "full of sound and fury," perhaps "signifying nothing."

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Friedlander.


Richard Friedlander is a mediator in the East Bay.