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Code-switching.

July 27, 2009, 9:27 am

Commenter Charlieford wants to put this to the EotAW community.

Last week I read a blog entry by a friend slamming Obama for, among other things, being our TOTUS, “Teleprompter of the United States.” He was offended by Obama’s use of a script (apparently) during his televised tribute to Walter Cronkite. Like a lot of conservatives, he was quick to pile on the criticisms—the delivery was cold and emotionless, not “from the heart,” the speech may not even have been written by Obama, and it included “large words embedded into the speech to ensure that only half of the Americans who heard the speech would understand it.”

That last one didn’t sound at all right and I went back and re-listened to the speech. I didn’t notice anything egregiously arcane or overly sophisticated in his vocabulary. I asked the author what had offended him in that regard, and he didn’t have a convincing response. Initially I concluded that he had simply over-reached, but now I think he was really imputing, without realizing it, his general reaction to Obama’s presidential discourse to this particular speech.

What makes me think so is watching Obama’s impromptu address on Gates-gate, or, more specifically, his comments on his earlier intervention (“stupidly”) in the affair. It also gave me a theory on Obama’s tendency to rely on a teleprompter.

The Cronkite speech, which he does seem to be reading, is a humble piece of oratory. A middle-of-the-road, ultimately forgettable, presidential testimonial on an occasion of national grief. It’s forgettability is entirely appropriate, I think (I tend to cringe when the rhetoric gets too poetic, as with Reagan’s Challenger address, or anytime anyone speaks about ceremonies of innocence being drowned).

But look at his impromptu, unscripted, comments on Gates-gate, this past Friday, keeping in mind the above-mentioned blogger’s sensitivity to “large words.” In comments that took a little more than five minutes to deliver, Obama uses the following terms: ratcheting, calibrated, maligning, resolve, garnered, extrapolate, fraught, teachable-moment, portfolio.

I submit to you that some or all of these terms are on the periphery of, perhaps even entirely outside, the familiar universe of discourse of most self-proclaimed “ordinary” Americans. You know, the kind that live in West Virginia and environs. The kind that voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

(I would also argue that the general tone of the comments—with its nuanced approach to the whole matter, self-aware and self-critical, calling on everyone involved, including himself, to step back, reflect, think deeper about it all—didn’t exactly embody the typical attitudes that class of Americans are attracted to, but that’s another discussion.)

What I’d like to hypothesize now is this: that Obama, alumnus of Columbia and Harvard, Obama the former professor of Constitutional law at the University of Chicago, above all, Obama the reader, lapses into a style of speaking that is susceptible to the criticism of being overly-sophisticated, even borderline incomprehensible, to ordinary Americans. And that he uses the teleprompter, not so he can deliver high-flying rhetoric, but so he can ratchet it down.1

We all have various ways of navigating these difficulties. Some of us simply give up reaching the ordinary folk. We find ourselves, deliberately or by accident, moving almost entirely in circles made up of educated people. Our exchanges with the ordinary folk occur primarily in the vicinity of a cash-register. Politicians don’t have that luxury. Some, particularly those from the South, have an almost preternatural ability to slip back and forth between discourses, from the vulgate to educated-ese with barely a hiccup, depending on the audience. Obama’s strategy, I’m guessing, is to write out what he wants to say, which allows him to calibrate his language, uh, more felicitously.


1Nice, Charlie—ed.

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