Saturday :: Jun 26, 2004

Bush v Kerry Debates

by Mary

James Fallows has a very interesting piece in the Atlantic Monthly about the debating styles of George W Bush and John Kerry. Fallows reviewed a number of the debates of Bush and Kerry and interviewed a number of people who have followed the careers of these two. When he reviewed the debate of 1994 where Bush overcame Ann Richards, he was surprised because the Bush debating then was stylistically very different from the man we see as President today.

I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications. When I invited him to watch the Bush-Richards tape, Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different. His choice of words, the pace of his speech, the length and completeness of his sentences, all made him sound like another person. Even his body language was surprising. When he was younger, Bush leaned toward the camera and did not fidget or shift his weight. He arched his eyebrows and positioned his mouth in a way that, according to Lakoff, signifies in all languages an intense, engaged form of speech.

Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same. Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism, had all worked against Ann Richards. These have been constants in his rhetorical presentation of himself over the years, despite the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills, and they have been consistently and devastatingly effective. The upcoming debates between Bush and Kerry will in an odd way be a contest of unbeaten champions.

Fallows comments about Kerry give a great background on the very real strengths of Kerry's debating skills. And Fallows observed that he found Kerry fascinating to watch.

The contrast in speaking styles is complete on nearly every axis, and it illustrates the larger contrasts of character and background that these men bring to this race. Bush is best when prepared and worst when surprised; Kerry is best when forced to react and worst when given too much time. Bush is best when insisting on his two or three main points, Kerry when recognizing the nuances of any particular issue. Two different concepts of leadership, in addition to two political views, are at stake in the campaign—and the clash of personalities will be more interesting than the differences over policy in the debates.

This is a fascinating look at the debates and what we can expect when Bush and Kerry face off this year. I recommend reading it all.

Mary :: 11:38 AM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!