Languages
Page last updated at 08:38 GMT, Thursday, 17 April 2008 09:38 UK

Washington diary: On misspeaking

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

A medieval Bible scholar scrutinising parchment documents, or a philologist grappling with the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls would feel at home in the current election campaign.

President George W Bush speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on 16 April 16
President Bush has made a virtue out of his verbal clumsiness

Who else would be prepared to agonise over the true meanings of a few words, the way the candidates, their surrogates or the ringside observers of my profession are?

The last time I came across this degree of semantic scrutiny was at Oxford University, where jealous academics took special glee in gouging each other's eyes out over a few misused words.

The tribe of Obama is currently battling the tribe of Clinton over the exact meaning of the word "bitter".

Gritty origins

Just how elitist, arrogant and out of touch was the Senator from Illinois when he claimed small town Americans were clinging to guns and Jesus - that obvious combination - because of bitterness about the economy, political neglect and goodness knows what else?

"The wholesome heartland doesn't do bitter", came the response.

But then some citizens from the heartland piped up and protested that, yes, they did have every right to feel bitter, because their lives were suitably miserable.

Just as his advisers thought that he had lost the vote of every gun owner in the US - an estimated 190 million people! - Obama got the endorsement of the American Hunters and Gun Owners Association.

As someone who covered the war in Bosnia, I can attest to the fact that landing at any airport during the conflict was... tinged with misgivings about sniper fire and bullets

To hammer home the point he was filmed shooting hoops in sweat pants, hardly an elitist pastime, and his wife Michelle took to the airwaves flaunting her own gritty working class origins.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton made sure she was being filmed handling super-sized tankards of beer in a working class bar in Philadelphia, hoping that no one would ask her whether she preferred Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc.

The bitter row about "bitter" was preceded by the embarrassment of Hillary claiming that in 1995 she had been threatened by sniper-fire as she disembarked from a plane in war-torn Bosnia.

The TV footage, instantly to hand, showed the former First Lady grinning, ambulating and showing no visible signs of stress.

Goodness! As someone who covered the war in Bosnia, I can attest to the fact that landing at any airport during the conflict was an experience less unpleasant that being stranded at Heathrow, but nevertheless tinged with misgivings about sniper fire and bullets, even if you grinned your way through them.

Snooty media

Absurd as they are, both episodes have bled into the opinion polls.

Hillary is deemed less honest as a result and Obama too snooty for that demographic he so desperately needs to woo in order to win - disgruntled white men.

As I was feeling very bitter this morning - in a white male kind of way - about burning my toast because I had got too absorbed in the Washington Post, a thought occurred to me.

Senator Hillary Clinton raises a mug of beer  in a toast on 12 April
Time to cut Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama some slack?

No-one ever hauled George W Bush over the coals for using a wrong word, which betrayed the real guy behind the mask.

That's because George Bush was constantly misspeaking.

Bush's character survived his language.

His mask always jelled with the Mensch behind it.

He is veneer all the way through.

Bush wallowed in dysfunctional grammar, merrily made words up as he soldiered gamely from one linguistic train wreck to the next.

And although some snooty, snarling types in the media made fun of him, no-one ever really held it against him.

George Bush brilliantly realised the benefit of inarticulacy - if you make a habit of botching language, how can anyone hold a single misspoken word against you?

One of the best applause lines in his 2004 stump speech involved the President making fun of his own inarticulacy.

I saw Bush's linguistic charm work its magic during one of the debates with John Kerry.

'Too smooth'

The venue was Phoenix and we were closeted in a windowless hotel ballroom with the polling guru Frank Luntz and 30 of his human guinea pigs, each strapped to an electronic dial.

There were 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and 10 independents.

In the US, the right to express an opinion is underpinned by the Constitution, frequently leavened at church and nurtured at school

Bush fluffed his way through virtually every answer and Kerry slithered with lawyerly precision from one cogent point to the next.

Afterwards Frank asked the audience: Who won the debate? 26 hands went up for Kerry.

Who would you vote for? Astonishingly, 24 hands shot up for Bush.

"But he lost the debate?" Frank asked. "Yes, but Kerry sounds too smooth", an indignant chorus retorted.

Let me state very clearly at this stage that I don't buy into the widely held European notion that Americans are inarticulate.

The opposite is the case in my experience.

Show and tell

You rarely meet an American who is lost for words.

Their right to express an opinion is underpinned by the Constitution, frequently leavened at church and nurtured at school where even the youngest children are encouraged to stand in front of a crowd and talk about their favourite fluffy toy. It's called show and tell.

But the language has to ring true and that's where John Kerry fell short and George Bush scored well.

No, I am not really arguing for the triumph of botched language.

If anything, this drawn-out election campaign has dished up some of the best speeches given on any campaign trail in recent years, from both Democratic candidates.

But with our culture of instant blogs and excessive scrutiny, where no candidate can utter a single word without it being recorded and dissected, we are in real danger of scaring our politicians into inoffensive blandness.

Then we really wouldn't know who they really are.

So let's cut Hillary and Barack some slack.

Let them misspeak without fear of recrimination or persecution - long live ineloquenceness!

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News 24 and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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