Steel City Cowboy

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Party Tricks

I just can't get jazzed about speeches given by candidates and politicians, even if it's the guy (or gal) I'm rooting for.

You see, scripted speeches in the context of a political campaign are one thing and one thing only: a party trick. Something they've either been born able to do, or picked up along the way. Yes, the ability to read the teleprompter or a sheet of notes and sound natural while doing so is a valuable fund raising tool while on the campaign trail, just like being a great juggler can make you a few bucks at the boardwalk. But don't mistake for anything more than what it is: a trick.

The first time I thought of the skill this way was after reading Joe Klein's Primary Colors, the pseudo-Clinton insider biography. The character (played by Larry Hagman in the movie adaptation) who is running against the pseudo-Clinton is portrayed as having a magical skill for "turning on" when he spoke to TV cameras. It planted a seed in my subconscious that bloomed within the last few years.

It does bother me, then, that people put such a huge amount of stock into the scripted political or campaign speech. For example, in 2004, I saw President Bush speak in person at a campaign rally. He wasn't bad. Certainly a better scripted speaker than 80% of the professors I had at Penn. But big deal. It didn't mean a thing, one way or another.

Candidates and officials usually do not write their own speeches, although they certainly give notes, make suggestions and grant final approval. So we can assume that they at least agree with what they are reading. However, it does not give any of the listeners a window into their thought processes, and isn't that what we really want? Personally, I find the unscripted town hall format far more illustrative of a candidate or politician's true demeanor.

This is not to say that scripted speeches are all insincere. They are probably not. The point, though, is that when watching anyone with a modicum of skill in this flavor of party trick, you simply won't be able to tell.

The darker side of this particular skill, however, is that it masquerades as its opposite. It tells us little about a candidate's true feelings, beliefs or intentions, yet gives the impression that it has told us everything. It is designed to make us feel, to touch our hind brains instead of our fore brains, yet gives the impression that it appeals to our intellect. It is a form of acting. Someone who has the skill can stand up there and deliver a great, moving speech regardless of how they really feel or think about the material, and yet people who lack the skill (or are ignorant of its very existence) are certain that no one could talk so passionately or knowledgeably about a topic unless they really meant it.

They are wrong.

And so, if you want to base your opinions of a person on how well they deliver a scripted speech, by all means do so. But don't delude yourself into thinking that a great speech is anything more than what it really is: entertainment.

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