Monday, February 27, 2012

Say What?

I thought the problem with Romney was that he does not do well without a script. That is not the case. By his latest famous quote about being “severely conservative,” he demonstrated that he does not do well when he ad libs. If you watch you will see that his body language is out of sync with his words. When the question is whether or not we want a President who can deliver lines with conviction, the name Ronald Reagan has got to come to mind. The Gipper was one of the best either on or off script and was the last great rhetorician to occupy the White House. It helps to have great writers, which is something Mitt Romney does not have and desperately needs.

Here is a little trivia about the Presidents’ age (birth year) and their writers. Reagan (1911), a trained actor, had Peggy Noonan. Richard Nixon (1913) worked hard at delivering lines and even used 3 X 5 index cards to practice small talk. William Safire scripted Nixon. A towering and passionate rhetorician, Lyndon Johnson (1908) relied on Richard Goodwin, who named LBJ’s political agenda “The Great Society”. Jack Kennedy (1917), the first television president relied on Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson to craft his speeches.

Here is the point of the trivia. When Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy were young men, radio was the dominant medium of mass communication, masterfully utilized by President Franklin Roosevelt with his famous fire-side chats. World War II intensified the importance of radio. The spoken word, the rhetoric used in public speaking, and the crucial importants of written words characterizes the manner in which those men formulated their thoughts. It also influenced their choices of writers who they regarded as critical to their political success. That became more important as the dominant medium became television by 1960.

Mitt Romney (1947) is a baby-boomer for whom the dominant medium became television with the assassination of President Kennedy. Words formulating Romney’s thoughts are sound-bites, not the paragraphs of the radio era. It is bumper-sticker rhetoric, ideal for Twitter. To complicate Romney’s predicament further, he is a spreadsheet man. His speeches could well be written in Excel for a PowerPoint presentation. It would also appear that Romney does some of his own editing.

That is proving to be a mistake. In our media environment, words are like toothpaste. Once they are out, it’s tough to get them back in the tube. Do you think someone really wrote the lines “corporations are people,” “not concerned about the very poor,” or “severely conservative?” Could it be a cynical plot to discredit Romney in the eyes of various constituent groups? Can such thoughtless remarks be purposeful?

The only thing inevitable about Mitt Romney is that he will respond to the pressure of this campaign by trying to outdo his opponents and saying things he will have to redact. If he is wins its nomination, the Republican Party had better hire some great writers to load his lips. He could also use an acting coach to synchronize his body language with his lines. Since no one in the GOP seems to like him, Romney should study Nixon. The party did not like him either, but Nixon won. Otherwise, Romney is in over his head in a rhetorical duel with President Obama.


Article first published as Say What? on Blogcritics.

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