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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 07:09 am

Commander in speech

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The better speaker doesn't always win, says Prof. Allan Metcalf

After carefully studying the speeches of the nation's 43 presidents, Allan Metcalf has learned that it's quite possible for a commander in chief to routinely mangle the language -- and still succeed.

In fact, voters seem to be quite forgiving of presidential candidates and incumbents who have trouble stringing a coherent sentence together.

"The better speaker," says Metcalf, "is not necessarily the winner."

Insights such as these have made the MacMurray College professor of English a quasi-celebrity this political year, due in large part to this summer's release of his book Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush (Houghton Mifflin). Metcalf has been interviewed for NBC's Today Show and Newsweek and has appeared on C-SPAN and CNBC, among other outlets.

Metcalf, who also serves as the Jacksonville private college's registrar and assistant vice president for academic affairs, says he began researching presidential speeches to determine whether they held common elements that caused the men that delivered them to be victorious.

And what did Metcalf find? "Nothing surfaced. In fact, you can be a terrible speaker and still be president."

The current incumbent could be exhibit A.

"Bush is very content with his way of speaking, using the down-home and aw-shucks approach. It is hard to tell if he consciously chose to use this style," Metcalf says. It's all the more puzzling because neither his father, former President George H.W. Bush, nor his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks in a Texas drawl.

Even though Bush's politics are conservative, "he is not conservative in his speech," given his many malapropisms and made-up words, Metcalf says. He calls Bush the "blunderer in chief," a trait he shares with presidents such as Andrew Jackson, who couldn't spell; Dwight Eisenhower, who botched grammar; and Gerald Ford, who mispronounced words. As for his habit of inventing words, Bush comes close to Thomas Jefferson, but "Jefferson made up words systematically and meaningfully." Bush's inventions, Metcalf says, happen more by chance.

As for John Kerry, Metcalf calls the Democratic nominee "terrific -- at speech a century out of date.

"He comes from Yale, where he won oratory prizes on the debate team, but oratory is obsolete," Metcalf says. "It demands fully developed speeches that argue a point through logic and argument -- but we are in an era of sound bites."

Few people, Metcalf says, will take the time to listen intently to a developed argument to finally get the point near the end.

In a commentary he wrote for the BostonGlobe before the Democratic National Convention, Metcalf advised the nominee to avoid oratory.

Did Kerry heed his advice? Metcalf doubts it but says the nominee's writers "loaded his speech with sparkling lines."

So how do other presidents stack up?

John F. Kennedy was a master of the sound bite. "Every line is brilliant -- one brilliant explosion after another," Metcalf says. And even though we quote Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, it cannot be reduced to sound bites. It is an example of oratory. "The whole message is carefully developed," Metcalf says.

At the other end of the spectrum is Zachary Taylor, whom Metcalf characterizes as "the first really awful speaker," and Ford, who had such trouble pronouncing words that his speechwriters were given a list of 100 words to avoid. (Metcalf couldn't get hold of the list.)

Metcalf himself carefully chooses his words and meticulously pronounces them in a slow, soft-spoken voice. He grew up in Chicago, where his father was a professor of German philology at the University of Chicago. He studied English at Cornell University, earned a fellowship to study in Berlin, and then received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966. His dissertation covered the poetic diction in Old English poetry, and he used this to further his teaching at the University of California at Riverside. In 1973 he was offered the chair of the English department at MacMurray College, where he has been ever since.

Since 1980 Metcalf has served as the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. He oversees the society's annual "Word of the Year" voting, choosing one word (it must be in print not just spoken) that represents the year. This work led to his interest in writing books, beginning with America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America, co-authored with David K. Barnhart in 1997. The book chronicles a word a year since the early 17th century -- "turkey" (1607), "American" (1776), and "soccer mom" (1996).

Next came The World in So Many Words (1999), focusing on the many languages that exist around the globe. Metcalf switched gears with How We Talk: American Regional English Today (2000), exploring the ways in which people use words in different parts of the United States.

Metcalf's most recognized book, published in 2002, is Predicting New Words. In it he explains the five factors that must be present for a new word to become commonly used. The book, which gained a review in the New York Times, won wide support from linguists.

In researching Presidential Voices, Metcalf was able to tap a wealth of information available on the Internet.

The University of Michigan, which stores audio recordings of many presidents, makes the clips available online. Listening to their voices added a valuable dimension to his analysis, Metcalf says -- for example, Teddy Roosevelt had a high-pitched New York accent.

Be he afflicted with a Texas drawl or a high-pitched New York accent, a president must convey two things, Metcalf says: He has to be "dignified and down to earth."

For that, perhaps, we can thank the first president. "[George] Washington believed a president needed to be dignified to be equal to a European monarch. Every president since Washington has followed his dignified yet down-to-earth style."

On Nov. 2, will voters go with the candidate who lacks eloquence or the one who doesn't seem to be down to earth? Metcalf isn't making any predictions. He's already busy on his next book, which will explore "words, pronunciations, and speaking styles that we no longer follow."

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