[saymaListserv] NYTimes.com Article: The Candidates, Seen From the Classroom

free polazzo freepolazzo at comcast.net
Fri Sep 24 09:41:09 JEST 2004


A clear and timely explanation of why President Bush may well "win" the TV 
Debates (and the election), even though he may have the worse ideas and 
even have fewer people supporting his views.

It would be terrible for this election to be won or lost on "style", but 
how you say it may be as important as what you say.

Friends surely know this truth, as we also seem too often be convinced by 
style over content.

Maybe this is part of the curse of being "too educated"?  Or is it that we 
are not educated enough?

Humm. . . .



The Candidates, Seen From the Classroom

September 24, 2004 By STANLEY FISH    N.Y. Times.com Article


In an unofficial but very formal poll taken in my freshman writing class 
the other day, George Bush beat John Kerry by a vote of 13 to 2 (14 to 2, 
if you count me). My students were not voting on the candidates' ideas. 
They were voting on the skill (or lack of skill) displayed in the 
presentation of those ideas.

The basis for their judgments was a side-by-side display in this newspaper 
on Sept. 8 of excerpts from speeches each man gave the previous day. Put 
aside whatever preferences you might have for either candidate's positions, 
I instructed; just tell me who does a better job of articulating his 
positions, and why.

The analysis was devastating. President Bush, the students pointed out, 
begins with a perfect topic sentence - "Our strategy is succeeding"- that 
nicely sets up a first paragraph describing how conditions in Afghanistan, 
Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia four years ago aided terrorists. 
This is followed by a paragraph explaining how the administration's 
policies have produced a turnaround in each country "because we acted." The 
paragraph's conclusion is concise, brisk and earned: "We have led, many 
have joined, and America and the world are safer."

It doesn't hurt that the names of the countries he lists all have the 
letter "a," as do the words "America" and "safer." He and his speech 
writers deserve credit for using the accident of euphony to give the 
argument cohesiveness and force. There is of course no logical relationship 
between the repetition of a sound and the soundness of an argument, but if 
it is skillfully employed repetition can enhance a logical point or even 
give the illusion of one when none is present.

The students also found repetition in the Kerry speech, about the 
outsourcing of jobs, but, as many pointed out, when Mr. Kerry repeats the 
phrase "your tax dollars" it is because he has become lost in his own 
sentence and has to begin again.

When he finally extracts himself from that sentence, he makes two big 
mistakes in the next one: "That's bad enough, but you know there's 
something worse, don't you?" No, Senator Kerry, we don't know - because you 
haven't told us. He is asking people to respond to a point he hasn't yet 
made and, even worse, by saying "don't you?" he is implying they should 
know what this point is before he makes it. As a result, the audience is 
made to feel stupid.

And if that wasn't "bad enough,'' consider his next two sentences. Up until 
now Mr. Kerry's point (insofar as you could discern one) had been that 
current tax policies reward companies for moving their operations overseas. 
But he goes on to add, "it gets worse than that in terms of choices." The 
audience barely has time to wonder what and whose choices he's talking 
about before it is entirely disoriented by the declaration that "today the 
tax code actually does something that's right." Excuse us, but how can 
getting something "right" be "worse"? It turns out that there is an answer 
to that question later in the speech - Mr. Kerry says that while the tax 
code now rewards companies that export American products, Mr. Bush wants to 
eliminate that good incentive - but it comes far too late for an audience 
discombobulated by the sudden and unannounced change in the argument's 

Senator Kerry, my students observed with a mix of solemnity and glee, has 
violated two cardinal rules of exposition: don't presume your audience has 
information you haven't provided, and always pay attention to the 
expectations of your listeners. They also felt that when he concludes by 
declaring that "when I'm president of the United States, it'll take me 
about a nanosecond to ask the Congress to close that stupid loophole," he 
undercuts the dignity both of his message and of the office he aspires to 
by calling the loophole "stupid" (instead of "unconscionable" or 
"unprincipled" or even "criminal"). "Stupid," one student said, is not a 
"presidential kind of word."

So what? What does it matter if Mr. Kerry's words stumble and halt, while 
Mr. Bush's flow easily from sentence to sentence and paragraph to 
paragraph? Well, listen to the composite judgments my students made on the 
Democratic challenger: "confused," "difficult to understand," "can't seem 
to make his point clearly," "I'm not sure what he's saying," and my 
favorite, "he's kind of 'skippy,' all over the place."

Now of course it could be the case that every student who voted against Mr. 
Kerry's speech in my little poll will vote for him in the general election. 
After all, what we're talking about here is merely a matter of style, not 
substance, right? And - this is a common refrain among Kerry supporters - 
doesn't Mr. Bush's directness and simplicity of presentation reflect a 
simplicity of mind and an incapacity for nuance, while Mr. Kerry's ideas 
are just too complicated for the rhythms of publicly accessible prose?

Sorry, but that's dead wrong. If you can't explain an idea or a policy 
plainly in one or two sentences, it's not yours; and if it's not yours, no 
one you speak to will be persuaded of it, or even know what it is, or (and 
this is the real point) know what you are. Words are not just the cosmetic 
clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of 
that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others 
respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and 
sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), 
the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack, and no one 
will follow you.

Nervous Democrats who see their candidate slipping in the polls console 
themselves by saying, "Just wait, the debates are coming.'' As someone who 
will vote for John Kerry even though I voted against him in my class, 
that's just what I'm worried about.

Stanley Fish is dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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