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I’ve been thinking about how awful the last two US presidents have been at speaking interactively in public. Given that it constitutes a not insignificant portion of what they do (and what they’ve done with some regularity prior to ascending to the highest political office in the country), I’d have trouble believing it if I hadn’t witnessed it for the entirety of my adult life.

Obama has a good presentation when it comes to reading what the teleprompter tells him to say (Bush could hardly even manage that), but when it comes to giving interviews or pressers, they both consistently sound like stammering buffoons:

It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to presume that a significant portion of readers could give more polished, intelligible performances than the most recent putative leaders of the free world have been able to.

It might be that politicians on the national stage are so restricted in what they say that very little can ever really sound candid or coherent. More cynically, maybe they don’t actually spend any time other than when they’re actually in front of the public thinking in the sorts of generic platitudes they regularly feed us and so genuinely aren’t familiar with the material.

In that same vein, Jokah Macpherson adds that “the most likely explanation is that public speaking doesn’t have much payoff in politics. The most successful politicians are more likely the ones that can win over the right people (lobbyists, party leaders, etc) through charm one-on-one. There’s a minimum level of competence necessary but few people change votes based on good speaking delivery.”

More cynically still, perhaps it’s that the most successful politicians can be won over and reliably used as marionettes by said lobbyists and party leaders.

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. HBO's Veep expresses this perfectly.

    Selena Myers in front of a camera speaks in nothing but bland platitudes and even behind the scenes has 0 actual power.

    In the last season the president resigns and she steps up and nothing really changes.

  2. It is really hard to remember lies and plausibly represent the whole cloth that substitutes for the truth behind the scenes. These politicians literally have no material. Even people who don't do public speaking for a living can give decent answers and explanations about stuff they know a lot about. You just have so much to draw on when you explain something you know really well. These politicians can't do this because there is no there there. No one can explain how to get back from a place he has never been. The questions they are asked specifically demand that they just make crap up and have it agree with all the other lies, at least superficially. That is a lot of BS to keep track of and remember.

  3. AE, you are not imagining things. Presidential language level has been going downhill for a long time.

    I'm not asking for a Thomas Jefferson or anything. Would Teddy Roosevelt be too much to ask for?

    Radical left wing nutjobs such as David Brooks were projecting all sorts of gifts onto Obama that he didn't have.

    Brooks literally raised up Obama as an intellectual god based on Obama's pants creases. Brooks, a man who passes for an intellectual in our benighted age.

    “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging,” Brooks recently told me, “but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don’t know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense he knew both better than me.”

    That first encounter is still vivid in Brooks’s mind. “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks says, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” In the fall of 2006, two days after Obama’s The Audacity of Hope hit bookstores, Brooks published a glowing Times column. The headline was “Run, Barack, Run.”

  4. SG,

    That explanation resonates with me. Very well put.



    David Brooks and Peggy Noonan should have their embarrassing pre-presidency columns thrown in their faces at just about every opportunity. There are plenty of mainstream 'conservative' personalities that get under my skin, but these two are among the worst of the worst.

  5. Steve,

    At least Joe Biden would be entertaining from time to time!

  6. I had the pleasure of running into David Brooks in one of the arrivals areas of National Airport as we were both waiting to recieve people, only about two weeks ago.

    I asked if he was David Brooks, he said yes. I told him I am not a fan of his work and that he is a "huge poser".

    He told me to go away. Then we stood awkwardly some distance apart for a few minutes, as his pick-up came first. It was reasonably pretty white woman probably twenty years his junior. An affair? He seemed really uncomfortable as he glanced at me on the way out so I think it could be — they hugged but didn't kiss.

    What would you have said with no notice or time to think? I am just glad I didn't say something flattering just because I recognized a famous person.

  7. "There is no there there."

    Hilarious…but true.

    Dan, you did better than my mom, who gave Dan Rather a hug in an airport after recognizing him. I'm like, "Seriously mom? Dan Rather?"

  8. That is interesting that Peggy Noonan has glowing pre-presidency reviews of Barack Obama. I either didn't realize this or had forgotten. Nowadays she pretty much bashes him week after week.

    I actually knew who he was back ~2003 or 2004 before he rose to the national spotlight because I happened to catch a clip of Cedric the Entertainer making a joke about the similarity between "Osama" and "Obama" in a show for the troops and thought, "Who the heck is Obama?" and looked him up on the internet. He seemed like an ok guy for a Democrat at the time but the magic definitely wore off for me, even by 2006.

  9. Dan,

    "What do you think of Steve Sailer?" or "Do you regret being such a cheerleader for Obama?", probably. I'm not sure I'd recognize him, though, since I've only seen a still shot of his face a couple of times.

    I used to listen to him and EJ Dionne on NPR on my Friday commute home. It was supposed to be a mini-Crossfire sort of segment. Yes, that means Brooks was representing the political right. And yes, it was painful to listen to. It's NPR, after all.

  10. Jokah,

    Here's one from 2008, though I know there were others.

  11. Yeah, maybe I missed an opportunity. He looked just like on TV and short, like 5'8" — I guess he's a square who always grooms exactly the same.

    I could have said something like 'What do you think will happen if the US becomes demographically like Brazil?'

    Or else… 'Stop staring at my pants crease. That's sexual harassment.'

    But by the time I thought of something good I'd shot my wad and he'd told me to piss off.

  12. Dan,

    I should clarify that those are a couple of the things I'd like to say after contemplating it for a moment. You weren't expecting the encounter.

  13. Part of Putin's appeal to the Russian public is he's good at interacting on his feet, and has pretty classy diction, which has been rare since Lenin. Stalin had a Georgian accent, Nikita K. was a cunning peasant, Brezhnev was unimpressive, Gorbachev had a southern accent, and Yeltsin was drunk.

  14. Re: Peggy Noonan. Shortly after 9/11, Peggy wrote a column idolizing the nation's heroes of that day….newscasters. Not firemen. Newscasters.

    I had thought she was one of the good ones before that column. I have never read her or taken her seriously since.


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