Music: Dead Can Dance: Selections from North America 2005 (2006)
A recent post by Debbilicious has encouraged me to explain why I have made up my mind in favor of Obama over Clinton. Actually, I’ve already blogged about one of my major reasons recently: voice and diplomacy. Nevertheless, Debbie articulates my reasons better than I can: (1) enhancing/restoring the reputation of the United State in the world theatre; (2) having a skillful and articulate figure-head that brings folks together via oratory; (3) getting us out of the war in Iraq; and (4) Obama’s “anti-establishmentarianism.”
As a rhetorician, I must admit the most important reason is the second, as oratory and rhetorical skill make the other three reasons possible. Clinton’s repeated remark that “Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience, I have a lifetime of experience, Sen. Obama has one speech in 2002,” is not only offensive, but also demonstrative of the cynical ideology that animates her bid for the White House. If the ability to communicate to the “American” people and, well, the rest of the world is relatively unimportant, then so too is the symbolic function of the presidency: Clinton is a means-to-an-ends kind of politician, and frankly, that’s the logic of the Bush II administration as well. Thankfully, I do think the cynical ideology that animates the Clinton campaign is very far from the imperial presidency. It is still, nevertheless, partriarchical and rooted in a centuries-long sexism that associates speech and the body with the feminine.
I’ve remarked before here and elsewhere that an important reason to vote for Obama and against Clinton has to do with the sound of their actual voices. I know this sounds absurd, but I’m serious. Jim Brown emailed me a link to a Public Radio International program titled “The Sound of Leadership” that also makes my point better than I could myself. The British commentator narrating the piece assembled a vocal technician, coach, and expert to compare and contrast the voices of Obama and Clinton. “What you can hear” listening to the voice of Clinton, she says, “is a very tight voice; it’s stuck, it’s pushed, and actually when you look at her you can see all that in her body. . . . all these habits signal force, ‘I am not going to be interrupted.’ So, on one level, she’s actually trying to find her power, but it comes across as force.” The coach continues that her voice is “off-putting.” Obama’s voice is described as “smooth” and “relaxed,” and it is homologous to his obvious ease with his body. “Actually,” the coach says, his style is more feminine.
What is not discussed in the PRI program is the way in which speech communicates affect and primes us to react in certain ways. I have known many people who are blunt, direct talkers but mean well, and yet, the person to whom they are talking feels insulted or taken to task. Clinton’s voice, irrelevant of what she says, sets people off, sometime offending despite good intentions. I recall a conversation I had with my mother over the holiday break: when I asked my mother to explain why she “hated” Clinton, she responded, “I don’t know. There’s just something about her.” What is this “something?” I think it’s definitely gender, but this gendered something is inextricably related to Clinton’s delivery style.
What’s in a voice? More than we ever suspect—and more than we’d like to let on ourselves. Many of us cannot stand hearing recordings of our own voices because it reminds us that we communicate things to others that we would rather keep repressed. Analogously, we pick up on things from the timbre, tone, and textures of others voices that s/he cannot hide: fear, distress, anxiousness, excitement, sincerity. Obama communicates an ease, sincerity, and eunoia towards audiences with his voice; Clinton can do that too—and quite well at times. But sometimes one senses “the wall” or the insincere auto-speak mode with her too.
Finally, McCain’s voice is also an asset to him. He often speaks in relaxed and calm tones, although one would be hard-pressed to call his voice smooth (the benchmark of that Republican buttery voice is indeed Ronald Reagan). I’ve been watching McCain closely as well, and what I like about him is also what I fear about him the most: his voice communicates a sincerity of belief. He does not communicate goodwill like Obama, but he does have the ability with his tone to effectively say, “I’m telling the truth.” This troubles me because, after I watched Bill Moyer’s Journal last Friday, I worry that McCain has given himself over to the neo-cons (accepting the endorsement of a nutty apocalyptic preacher); moreover, he’s made it clear he fully supports the imperial presidency. He has sworn off signing statements, but I don’t trust that swearing.
All of this is to say: I trust my feelings about my political leaders as much as I do their statements. There is danger in giving oneself over entirely to feeling (this is what gets us into cult-land), but it’s nevertheless an important aspect. Speech is the place where statements and feeling meet-up. That’s why oratory is important to this election. That’s why we need to pay attention to speeches.