OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR ]
Published: September 24, 2004
CHICAGO — In an unofficial but very formal poll taken in my freshman writing class the other day, George Bush beat John Kerry by a vote of 13 to 2 (14 to 2, if you count me). My students were not voting on candidates' ideas. They were voting on the skill (or lack of skill) displayed in the presentation of those ideas.
The basis for their judgments was a side-by-side display in this newspaper on Sept. 8 of excerpts from speeches each man gave the previous day. Put aside whatever preferences you might have for either candidate's positions, I instructed; just tell me who does a better job of articulating his positions, and why.
The analysis was devastating. President Bush, the students pointed out, begins with a perfect topic sentence - "Our strategy is succeeding"- that nicely sets up a first paragraph describing how conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia four years ago aided terrorists. This is followed by a paragraph explaining how the administration's policies have produced a turnaround in each country "because we acted." The paragraph's conclusion is concise, brisk and earned: "We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer."
It doesn't hurt that the names of the countries he lists all have the letter "a," as do the words "America" and "safer." He and his speechwriters deserve credit for using the accident of euphony to give the argument cohesiveness and force. There is of course no logical relationship between the repetition of a sound and the soundness of an argument, but if it is skillfully employed repetition can enhance a logical point or even give the illusion of one when none is present.
The students also found repetition in the Kerry speech, about the outsourcing of jobs, but, as many pointed out, when Mr. Kerry repeats the phrase "your tax dollars" it is because he has become lost in his own sentence and has to begin again.
When he finally extracts himself from that sentence, he makes two big mistakes in the next one: "That's bad enough, but you know there's something worse, don't you?" No, Senator Kerry, we don't know - because you haven't told us. He is asking people to respond to a point he hasn't yet made and, even worse, by saying "don't you?" he is implying they should know what this point is before he makes it. As a result, the audience is made to feel stupid.
And if that wasn't "bad enough," consider his next two sentences. Up until now Mr. Kerry's point (insofar as you could discern one) had been that current tax policies reward companies for moving their operations overseas. But he goes on to add, "it gets worse than that in terms of choices." The audience barely has time to wonder what and whose choices he's talking about before it is entirely disoriented by the declaration that "today the tax code actually does something that's right." Excuse us, but how can getting something "right" be "worse"? It turns out that there is an answer to that question later in the speech - Mr. Kerry says that while the tax code now rewards companies that export American products, Mr. Bush wants to eliminate that good incentive - but it comes far too late for an audience discombobulated by the sudden and unannounced change in the argument's direction.
Senator Kerry, my students observed with a mix of solemnity and glee, has violated two cardinal rules of exposition: don't presume your audience has information you haven't provided, and always pay attention to the expectations of your listeners. They also felt that when he concludes by declaring that "when I'm president of the United States, it'll take me about a nanosecond to ask the Congress to close that stupid loophole," he undercuts the dignity both of his message and of the office he aspires to by calling the loophole "stupid" (instead of "unconscionable" or "unprincipled" or even "criminal"). "Stupid," one student said, is not a "presidential kind of word."
So what? What does it matter if Mr. Kerry's words stumble and halt, while Mr. Bush's flow easily from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph? Well, listen to the composite judgments my students made on the Democratic challenger: "confused," "difficult to understand," "can't seem to make his point clearly," "I'm not sure what he's saying," and my favorite, "he's kind of 'skippy,' all over the place."
Now of course it could be the case that every student who voted against Mr. Kerry's speech in my little poll will vote for him in the general election. After all, what we're talking about here is merely a matter of style, not substance, right? And - this is a common refrain among Kerry supporters - doesn't Mr. Bush's directness and simplicity of presentation reflect a simplicity of mind and an incapacity for nuance, while Mr. Kerry's ideas are just too complicated for the rhythms of publicly accessible prose?
Sorry, but that's dead wrong. If you can't explain an idea or a policy plainly in one or two sentences, it's not yours; and if it's not yours, no one you speak to will be persuaded of it, or even know what it is, or (and this is the real point) know what you are. Words are not just the cosmetic clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack, and no one will follow you.
Nervous Democrats who see their candidate slipping in the polls console themselves by saying, "Just wait, the debates are coming.'' As someone who will vote for John Kerry even though I voted against him in my class, that's just what I'm worried about.
Stanley Fish is dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.