How to Talk Presidential

 A president of the United States has to have two voices: dignified and down to earth.

Blame it on George Washington. And on Andrew Jackson. If you want to sound presidential, you need at least two styles of speaking.

Washington came first. At a time when nearly every country in the Western world was led by a hereditary ruler, the brand-new American republic was taking the bold step of doing without a monarch. Could an untitled citizen equal the majesty of kings and emperors?

Washington could. That’s one reason he received 100 percent of the electoral vote both times, the only president ever to do so.

As I understand it (I’m a linguist, not a historian), Washington had such prestige among his countrymen that he could have been king if he wanted. And he certainly could have been re-elected president as long as he wanted. But he believed in the democratic ideal, and in almost unprecedented fashion he declined the opportunity to rule, or to continue beyond two terms.

Washington was conscious that he was establishing the paradigm for the American presidency. So impressive was his paradigm that it was well over a century before any president ventured a third term, and once that limit was exceeded it evoked a constitutional amendment to prevent its happening ever again.

But this is about language. Washington felt the call to be dignified in his speech, so dignified as to be the equal of the crowned heads of Europe.

And he pretty much succeeded. Here’s the conclusion of his first inaugural address:

Having thus imported to you my sentiments, as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign parent of the human race, in humble supplication that since he has been pleased to favour the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparellelled unanimity on a form of Government, for the security of their Union, and the advancement of their happiness; so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.

Ever since, even as monarchies have yielded to democracies, Americans still expect their head of state to be able to speak with dignity.

But then, 40 years later, came a second demand on the American president. He shouldn’t act too uppity. Maybe he needed to palaver with potentates on their level, but when speaking to the American people he had to be down to earth, especially as the franchise gradually extended beyond gentlemen to ordinary citizens.

That was the message Andrew Jackson delivered by succeeding to the presidency in 1829. The first six presidents had been gentlemen, following Washington’s lead. They had been well educated and lived in grand homes. But Old Hickory, Sharp Knife, Sage of the Hermitage, Hero of the Battle of New Orleans, presented himself as a man of the people, born in a log cabin to dirt-poor Irish-immigrant parents. His predecessor as president, John Quincy Adams, labeled him “a barbarian who cannot write a sentence of grammar and can hardly spell his own name.”

That wasn’t true; Jackson was literate and often eloquent; but it turns out that such derision helped him win. A contemporary newspaper reported a farmer saying, “I never found a dictionary man that was not half a fool. I’m for Hickory, I believe.”

Thanks to the public’s thirst for the demotic, during the rest of the 19th century seven of Jackson’s successors in the presidency claimed to have been born in log cabins. If it weren’t for Jackson, there wouldn’t have been a President Lincoln.

(Unabashed plug: You can get full details in my 2004 book, Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles From George Washington to George W. Bush.)

Dignified yet down to earth. That’s what we want from our presidents.

Skip to the present day. This year we have two candidates who are good at both dignified and down to earth, as the presidential debates have shown. In Debate 1, Obama was dignified while under attack from down-to-earth Romney; in Debates 2 and 3, Romney was statesmanlike and Obama the attacker.

And if we have to choose, we seem to favor down-to-earth over dignified. George W. Bush was a blunderer when it came to dignified, but great at West Texas down to earth. Harry Truman too was unimpressive in formal speechifying but remains beloved for being down to earth.

Is this a lesson President Obama learned one debate too late?

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