Speech Saturation

After watching three days of Republican Convention, and now three days of the Democratic Convention, Kish and I are reaching the point of speech saturation.  I think I can make it through President Obama’s speech without suffering peroration poisoning — but it’s going to be close.

The sad fact is, there just aren’t many good speakers or speechwriters in either party.  Most of the speeches are hopelessly generic.  Everyone seems to talk about their families coming from nothing and their parents sacrificing.  Everyone relates some interaction with a generic American citizen — “in east Bejeebus, I met an ex-autoworker named Mel . . . .” — to illustrate some tired point.  Everyone tries to get the audience repeat some limp catch phrase, time and time again, until the viewer is ready to hurl a Coke can through the TV screen.  Except for Clint Eastwood, there’s not much originality out there.

The deliveries usually aren’t much better.  For every high-energy speaker like former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, there are dozens of deadpan, monotone snore-inducers.  Most have no sense of timing and can’t deliver a punch line; they don’t know how to use facial expressions or gestures to accentuate the words.  They stand stiffly, turning their heads from side to side like a robot, reading off the teleprompters.  Even worse, however, are those people who think they are just about the most clever, entertaining personalities imaginable; their mugging and winking is intolerable.

Tonight, we’re seeing more of the same.  Sigh.  President Obama’s speech can’t get here soon enough.

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The President’s Curious, Overcooked Metaphors

Although he has a reputation as a fine public speaker, President Obama often struggles to make his point and move on.  At times, he seems to get trapped within expanding metaphors, fighting without success to make his way out.

I first noticed this after he was elected, when he sought to explain why he wouldn’t follow Republican economic advice.  His simple point was:  they’ve just driven the car into the ditch, and now they want the keys back.  By the time he was done, however, the Republicans were sipping on Slurpees, the President and Democrats were mud-splattered and down in the ditch, and the illustration had become so weird and leaden you were rolling your eyes.

The same problem arose during the interview of the President on 60 Minutes.  When asked about unemployment, he gave a long response that included this statement:

“And, you know, sometimes when I’m talking to my team, I describe us as, you know, I’m the captain and they’re the crew on a ship, going through really bad storms. And no matter how well we’re steering the ship, if the boat’s rocking back and forth and people are getting sick and, you know, they’re being buffeted by the winds and the rain and, you know, at a certain point, if you’re asking, “Are you enjoying the ride right now?” Folks are gonna say, “No.” And [if you] say, “Do you think the captain’s doing a good job?” People are gonna say, “You know what? A good captain would have had us in some smooth waters and sunny skies, at this point.” And I don’t control the weather. What I can control are the policies we’re putting in place to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Odd  to hear the President depict Americans as seasick passengers on a ship, isn’t it?  And his simple point, that passengers won’t enjoy a ride through rough waters, even when the captain is doing the best job possible, also morphs into the whiny refrain that the President doesn’t control the economic “weather”– even though Presidents happily take credit when skies are sunny.

Ship metaphors are hackneyed and dangerous, because lots of bad things can happen on sea voyages — things like mutinies, shark attacks, being shanghaied, forcing people to walk the plank, and having to deal with evil, crazed, or obsessed captains like Captain Bligh, Captain Queeg, and Captain Ahab.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the President’s ill-considered sea captain answer makes its way into a Republican commercial when the general election finally arrives in 2012.