Verbal blunders: Not just for kids
By Michael M. Bates
Miss Teen South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton could have resorted to the typical beauty pageant ploy. You know, the one where the contestant simply restates whatever question she was asked and then shifts to a stirring call for world peace, a cure for AIDs, and an end to global warming.
But Miss Teen South Carolina was more adventurous. Asked why so many Americans can't find the United States on a map, she started with:
It went downhill after that. The girl's tortuous reply made her an instant YouTube celebrity, which isn't always good.
Cut her a little slack. She's a youngster acting under a great deal of pressure. Compared to some politicians, people whose careers depend on their public speaking abilities, she isn't all that bad.
President Bush is widely known and regularly excoriated for his rhetorical flourishes. One of my favorites was when he told a 2004 rally:
While Mr. Bush is often singled out for ridicule, the truth is he's hardly unique in mangling the language. Consider this incoherence from a presidential debate:
A majority of voters that year didn't care that the candidate spewed such gibberish; he looked like he knew what he was talking about. And so John Kennedy won the 1960 election.
Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was known for his garrulousness. One of his insights: "No sane person likes the war in Vietnam, and neither does President Johnson."
The late Democratic Senator Joseph Montoya served on the 1973 Watergate committee. Years later, Time Magazine's Walter Shapiro noted the senator provided comic relief during the hearings by dutifully reciting the questions staffers had given him, even if other senators had already asked the same questions.
Mr. Montoya distinguished himself in another incident when he pulled out a press release rather than the speech he intended to give. You'd think he might have figured out that when it started with "For immediate release," he wasn't delivering his prepared remarks. Yet the senator soldiered on, reading the entire press release including the part noting he'd been repeatedly interrupted with applause.
Clearly, some pols finding themselves in linguistic distress try to tough it out, regardless of to where it leads. An exception is former Senator Jake Garn. In a late 1970s' televised debate on the proposed US-USSR strategic arms limitation treaty, the Utah Republican got mixed up.
"What in the world am I trying to say?" asked Jake. He hesitated a moment to collect his thoughts. I don't remember any particulars from that evening on throw-weights or ballistic missile launchers or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. What I recall is a politician who was candid enough to acknowledge that he'd mentally meandered and had the guts to make a mid-course correction in front of a national audience.
Among today's heavily scripted politicians, public speaking still presents a challenge. Congresswoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) appeared on Crossfire in 1989 and made a sage observation about a recent earthquake: "Those who survived said, ‘Thank God I'm still alive,' but of course those who died, well, their lives will never be the same." Ms. Boxer moved on to the U.S. Senate three years later.
Bill Clinton usually is pretty slick, or so he at least thinks. Yet slick isn't how you'd describe his intoning: "This is still the greatest country in the world, if we just steel our wills and lose our minds."
Even the current crop of presidential candidates is not immune. Wisdom from the world's smartest woman, Mrs. Clinton, on Meet the Press a couple of years ago:
OK, Hillary, we know, we know.
And last weekend John Edwards, uncharacteristically speaking for himself rather than letting his wife do it him, revealed that his healthcare plan requires everyone to go to the doctor for preventative treatment. That's right. You will visit a physician and be treated. Or else.
This is definitely YouTube material. You know, in comparison to what passes for political discourse, Miss Teen South Carolina made, you know, quite a lot of sense.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the September 6, 2007 Reporter Newspaper.