Thursday, October 2, 2008

VP debate: painful

I predicted to myself that watching and listening to this would be painful, and it was. The format made it less of a real debate than the previous (Obama-McCain) one. Partly for this reason and partly because they are vice-presidential candidates, Biden and Palin ended up talking past one another much of the time (as others have pointed out). A bit of the post-debate commentary on PBS was interesting, especially Ellen Fitzpatrick's remarks on how the politics of gender have changed in the last 20-25 years (I'm too tired to summarize them).

Substantively, Biden had a few good moments, but the intellectual level of this debate was lower than the McCain-Obama encounter, and the use of English was definitely worse. A complete English sentence -- subject, verb, object, clauses in the right places -- was a rather rare commodity in this debate. Palin at times sounds to me like a non-native speaker, or more specifically someone who has not grown up with the language. Admittedly, this may have something to do with regional differences: English is spoken differently in different parts of the country. Moreover, this reaction is not to meant to be snobbish or picky. I have no objection to her colloquialisms, and I don't really care deeply that she doesn't how to use the verb "to attribute." I just find it difficult to listen to her and, frankly, almost impossible to watch her (though I forced myself to do so a few times). Her efforts to channel Ronald Reagan will no doubt have greater appeal to some others, however, than they do to me.


Anonymous said...

Quotation from Reagan was made by Reagan as he was attacking the creation of Medicare.

LFC said...

Yes, thanks, excellent point (noted among others by J. Chait at TNR). In saying that Palin "channeled Reagan" I was, however, referring not only to that direct quotation at the end, but to "there you go again, Joe," etc.

hank_F_M said...


Tom Roeser looks at what your are calling “Channeling Reagan” as a style more suited for television than the 19th century oratory style of William Jennings Bryan.

These all echoed the 19th century’s Bryan: LBJ (excessively so), Nixon (heavily so), Ford (ponderously so), Carter (boringly so), G.H.W. Bush (mechanically so), Clinton (unendingly so), George W. Bush (largely unimaginatively so). All 19th century-indebted.

But Reagan knew ho to use screen-based media and apparently when you let her loose so does Palin. Of course knowing how to use a particular media says nothing about what they are using it for.

LFC said...

I'll go along with Roeser on this point part way, not all the way.
It's hard to compare directly words we can hear to words we can only read. No one heard Bryan's "cross of gold" speech except the people in the hall where he gave it. No one heard the Gettysburg Address except the people within earshot of Lincoln on the battlefield that day. Etc. We don't know precisely how they sounded, though scholars who work on this presumably have a reasonably good idea. But the pt is, Roeser is comparing 19th c. written orations (for lack of a better phrase) to 20/21st-c. spoken ones. I don't think Biden was quite as pompous/'19th c' as Roeser suggests; he's right that Palin was more informal.
One of the most stirring, effective, and memorable speeches given in the last several decades was very '19th c': Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic convention (written, IIRC, by Robert Shrum).
Then there's MLK's I Have a Dream speech: also quite 19th-c one might say, albeit in a different way.