**I want to preface this post by saying this is not a political blog, so let’s all behave ourselves**
As you may know from the fact that I am the agent for THE ALMANAC OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION, SCANDALS & DIRTY POLITICS, I am a serious political junkie. I love following elections, listening to speeches, following political blogs, listening to the media describe the horse race… I really get into it.
I also think this time of year is an extremely interesting time to be a “words” person, because during an election words take on a power in our nation like perhaps no other time — when being a great writer, or listening to the right writer, and being able to enunciate a vision (and, especially, a story) can be the difference between being president and being an also ran.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since you all are fellow “words” people, I’m wondering about your response to the rhetoric of the campaign trail. How about those words? We’ve been hearing the words “style over substance” a lot, and open questions about how seriously we should take oratory in general.
So You Tell Me: as a “words” person, how do you view this time of year while looking through the lens of words and story? Can you separate the words from the speaker? Do words clarify or obfuscate? Do words express eternal truths or do people hear their own meaning? Does articulation of a vision make for a better leader or does the vision cover, rather than reveal the truth? Do the stories of the campaign have any relation to the stories we read in novels, memoirs, or history?
And please, separate this from your individual political allegiance, I’m most curious about how you view the power of words and story as they intersect with power.
Steph Leite says
Ah here’s a comment section discussion I won’t be taking part in. I don’t have very many opinions regarding the upcoming election. 🙂
I haven’t read all of these comments (yet). That said, I acknowledge that words have power, but I DON’T like the way the seem to determine elections! I’ll admit that it does take a certain amount of oratory skill to lead a country and persuade Congress to your way of thinking, etc. However, I believe that there’s a lot of other skills, experience, etc. that are every bit as important. Yet, during campaign time, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish any of that from the words of the politicians and media that deliver the information! That’s what frustrates me… trying to discover the truth through the filter of what those who are delivering it want you to think.
And, of course, it’s equally frustrating that millions of Americans don’t seem to realize that just because a politician says he/she will accomplish something, doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she will be able to do it, no matter how sincere his/her intentions are.
No, I can’t stand this time of year and hearing campaign speeches. In fact, I get all of my news online just so I can avoid listening to either them OR the media! I like words for stories, but when it comes to real life, give me facts!
susan d says
Disagree that you “gotta be downtrodden” or that the wealthy are resented by most people – as a matter of fact, I train the wealthy elite every day and love most of them – but I do believe that someone in higher places has got to do something about the health care system and the housing industry crash and FAST to keep middle class people (yes, that would be me) from ending up in a bad way…
Otherwise, America will end up like many Third-World countries where there are two classes – rich and poor.
Josephine Damian says
Nathan, In the HBO miniseries on John Adams that started Sunday, there was this terrfic “writerly” scene where Thomas Jefferson, having been chosen to write our country’s founding documents, was subject to “editorial notes” from John Adams and Ben Franklin, who like any good editor, suggested changes to the text. The actor playing Jefferson sat there, quietly taking in their comments, his subtle facial expressions showed half annoyance that they did not find his MS perfect (as he thought it was), but also his face showed that he believed their suggestions improved his MS.
Words alone matter. Words alone have power. The pen is mightier than the sword! Same then. Same now.
Side note: I am still not used to Merry’s new avatar.
Other Lisa says
Oooh, someone else watching JOHN ADAMS.
I love the portrayal of Jefferson.
Josephine Damian says
Nathn: Speaking of the election,I saw an article today that anyone who has a book coming out in the fall had better be prepared for getting little or no attention/publicity because it’ll be all about political books, politicians promoting themselves on the morning shows (as opposed to novelists)…. quite the bleak forecast for fall books.
You also saw this during 9/11 – whatever books that were released around that time fell through the cracks and wallowed in obscurity.
I’ve heard of quite a few books that failed because of bad timing, not merit. Sad.
Nathan Bransford says
I seem to recall from the last election that there was some evidence that non-political books were being lost in the shuffle with everyone so focused on the election, and yes, the media does tend to focus more on political books. But there’s also the school of thought that with more people buying books it raises all ships. I guess we’ll see.
Funny you should bring this up. I got a call this evening from a survey company. Based on their line of questioning, I realized they were polling people on behalf of the tobacco industry, which is currently fighting a movement in Congress to place them under the purview of the FDA.
Much as I dislike the tobacco industry, I couldn’t help but tailor my answers in such a way so as to try to help them figure out what their best message is (imo) if they want to fight this potential added regulation (i.e., since the FDA has slipped up on some major food and prescription drug issues lately, why should they get more of our tax dollars to regulate an already heavily regulated product rather than be asked to concentrate more on, um, food and drugs).
Anyway, it’s the PR pro in me. I just live for that stuff.
Up with words!
Aimless Writer says
I do ad work for a certain political party in a small NJ town. Words are my weapons!
Tom Burchfield says
I find the relationship between politics and language a stressful one, a relationship where values like truth and fact mostly suffer. As has been said, words are a tool. A hammer can be used to both build a house and beat someone’s brains out. Words are a necessary tool for human communication and surely can inspire us to great things. But way too often they are used to con, manipulate and bully (see Iraq, just for one). In the context of politics and the human quest for power, words should always be taken with a grain of salt . . . maybe even with a whole shaker full of it.
Even at its best, political rhetoric, because it has to reach so many people with different agendas, mostly winds up sounding hollow, cliched and denuded of meaning. There’s an old show business saying: The bigger your audience, the less you can say.
So, while I’m certainly a concerned and attentive citizen, when it comes to speeches and punditry, I keep my salt shaker ready and loaded in my holster. The inherent messiness of democracy politics all but entangles even the most conscientious politician in the web of hypocrisy and flipfloppery. It’s what politicians have done–and haven’t–and where they’ve succeeded–and failed–that informs my decisions on election day.
Words…for politicians are usually written by speech writers..professional speech writers that are paid to write what a specific group of people want to hear.So, are the speech writers fiction writers? And, here is a thought, maybe we should vote for the speech writers instead of the politicians.
Sam Hranac says
Something that is important to me in politics is that the speaker be the person that came up with the words. I hate the very idea of speech writers for professional politicians. An editor, okay. A crit group, maybe. But the person running for office should be the person setting the ideas down and lining them up.
Did Lincoln get handed the Gettysburg Address as he stepped off the train, or did he sweat and scribble over it himself?
If a person cannot contrive to express their own views, then that person should not lead others.
I think image is more important than words.
The Hillary (apple) 1984 youtube video gave a big boost to Obama, imo.
In earlier campaigns:
Lloyd Bentsen’s quip (to Dan Quayle) was amusing, but had no apparent effect at the polls.
Sen. Mondale’s “Where’s the beef” quip to Gary Hart may have damaged Hart, but it didn’t do much for Mondale.
And of course the classic political commercial is LBJ’s showing a little girl picking flowers, then getting nuked. Imagery working again.
My take on the present campaign is that the more Obama talks about race (or other issues) the more he takes himself off the pedestal and puts himself under the microscope.
Vote for Moose! A turducken in every pot and an electric car in every garage!
Words can tell stories and stories can remind us of what matters to us in our lives. So when Obama in his big speech yesterday told a story about his grandmother being afraid of black men on the street, and another story about a white campaign worker who got an elderly black man to come out to campaign, and still other stories that were meant to illuminate the racial divide and how we might overcome it, then, yes, words are powerful, and maybe even power.
Hmmm I find the talk of images being more powerful interesting. I consider myself a news junkie as well and I’d rather take in the words, and the tone they are spoken in into consideration than an image that can be set up or misrepresented. The Hillary Apple thing didn’t do a thing for me but thats just me.
And I’d rather they all be under the microscope BEFORE putting them up on any kind of pedestal.
Its the words. They can move you forward, tell it like it is or come back to haunt you and that all plays into letting people know what sort of person you are. Is politics a game – sure, but eventually your true colors come bleeding through.
susan d says
I’m willing to cast my vote for a speech writer. Especially one with a concrete plan to remediate the health care system. Or one with an engaging blog…
Never misunderestimate the power of words.
Think of him what you will, but Rush Limbaugh’s “Words Mean Things” speech is dead on.
The last politician to use words meaningfully was Everette Dirksen.
JFK may have been a distant second. Ronald Reagan remains first for the best delivery of words.
I majored in journalism in college and that decision mostly came from a very idealistic view of what words could do. I knew writing in that vein was all about finding truth but I also liked to think good journalism reminded people why they should care in the first place. For that reason, I guess I’m still a little idealistic when it comes to political candidates and what they say. Lately I’ve been bombarded with criticism from a friend because the person I’ll probably end up voting for is an eloquent speaker. “Just words” he keeps saying. I agree with him in that words have to be accompanied by action. But I also don’t see what’s wrong with someone who understand people WANT to get caught up in a great story all their own. I know lots of morons have given inspiring speeches, but I really feel like this is different. It’s so amazing to see how words charge through the atmosphere and change things. Or how a sentence can infuriate one person and inspire someone else to do something amazing. I’m rambling now.
But my point is, I get excited when leaders slice through the standard political rhetoric I expect and offer me something more genuine and tangible. I like it when they don’t just reiterate problems but remind me why I should care. I think maybe some leaders understand the weight of their words and if those words they choose produce more compassion, responsibility, and hope, I’m all for it. And I’m likely to respond. I think it was Jimmy Eat World who said “Believe your words can mean something’? I think that is particularly true in this election. I hope whoever succeeds carries through.
I think these grandious speaches, full of powerful prose, buzz words and phrases of the current economic and political world, overwrought with inspiration and revolutionary conviction…is the problem with candidates who fail.
Primarily because it’s the same stuff we hear every election.
As much as most people hate Bush these days, think back to what Kerry had to offer? He had these huge, sweeping speeches about “injecting new ideas” and “changing the way Washington works” and “taking back the country”.
That all sounds great, but on paper, so does communism. The big problem I think he had when people went to the polls (other than Bush’s short lived popularity) was a lack of rubber meeting pavement.
I’m ready for a change in D.C. like most people, but I’m starting to see a lot of that with the current batch of candidates.
You asked, Nathan, if we can separate the words from the speaker. To me, it seems infinitely more difficult to marry the two in the case of public figures. Perhaps I am cynical or jaded by the many examples I have seen of people who fail to live up to their words, but I don’t trust politicians. I too love politics (have a B.A. in Political Science), yet I cannot bring myself to rest my faith on the shoulders of a person who employs a team of writers to articulate a personal opinion.
The words themselves can be powerful, but in this case, I think the medium kills the message.
Adaora A. says
Hoover the problem with the last election was one thing and one thing only: RALPH NADER.
Just wanted to let that out.
The wordplay in this election from particular ends, makes it difficult for me to – as Nathan asked – seperate the words from the person. All I see is words being flung around in order to achieve political gain. It’s silly season, and it draws people’s attention away from the issues which matter. It’s a very selfish and dirty way to go about things.
Speaking of the Almanac: Nathan you should have watched Jeopardy tonight! I almost squealed when a whole vertical board was devoted to…THE ALMANAC. I got every single one correct. Why? Because you lure your blog readers into buying everthing you suggest. First I bought ON CHESIL BEACH, and now I’ve got THE ALMANAC. I love answering Alec Trebeck correctly though. It felt good to sweep three boards – one was literature in general and obviously, that was a beeze, another was The Beatles, again a breeze – and grin like a fool.
I’m cheap now. I worked in politics and like you, got the thrill of the words and the whole game of it. So much of what I hear annoys me and of course anyone I wanted to vote for was knocked out long ago. But yesterday when Obama addressed race in America? And I’d been pissed at him for months for being such a wimp regarding issues dear to my heart? I rolled over. I was sitting right here and said fuck yeah. He gets it. And now, that is probably that.
Jeez, Nathan — you really need to move to the East Coast so those of us over here can catch up on these conversations while they’re happening!
When I was teaching high-school English, I used to do a mini-unit each year on semantics. The central point I hoped they’d take away from that unit could be found in a strange imaginary scrap of dialogue I provided at the outset:
Person A: Duck!
Person B: Why?
Person A: Because I’m about to hit you over the head with the phrase “baseball bat”!
I asked them to imagine themselves in Person B’s shoes. Would they duck?
Political language does this all the time — substituting words for the things they stand for, and relying on our instinct to duck (or embrace) on cue. I’m always skeptical of claims to be persuaded only by logic and reason because they seem to disregard what is (to me, anyhow) obvious: the path between the outside world and the language centers of our brain goes (in both directions) through the viscera.
I do love words and their effects, as I guess I must if I want to be a writer. But damn, they are some slippery things to try to hold onto…
Kathryn Harris says
All I have to say Nathan is that if you ever want to divorce yourself from the love of elections, work in the news media for 10 years. Even though I only work for a mid-size daily newspaper, I want to jab my eardrums with icepicks by the time November rolls around because I’m so tired of listening to the words.
sex scenes at starbucks says
I guess I always try to pay attention to the meaning of what the person is trying to say. For instance, President Clinton is credited with being a marvelous, engaging speaker. I was lukewarm toward him as president and never quite knew why, but then I saw him speak on David Letterman a few years ago. He opened up and spoke his mind the way you wish they would/could when they’re actually president, and I came away thinking what an intelligent, articulate man he is.
I guess at the end of the day, the words don’t matter much unless you look back and take some meaning from them. Too many politicians (even the current favorites) leave me empty at the end of the day.
“Stick and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
The real meaning of that phrase, I believe, is that words can only hurt you if you let them. Unfortunately, most people do.
Heh…as writers we are expected to create characters that need to be loveable-or at least fascinating-and create a world that’s believable.
Remember on The Wire, Bunk said something like, “The bigger the lie the more they believe it…”
I might be misquoting it but the idea behind it stayed with me. Words are powerful and this is especially seen during the election season. Any election. I guess that’s why I’m more interested in what folks do besides spew a lot of pretty words.
I don’t really know if there’s any one way to look at these deep questions, but here’s my take on it:
The media is a strange animal. As someone who has more of a background in television than the written word, I found myself frustrated and disgusted with the way in which stories and ideas were presented to the public, not just in the United States, but all over the world. Taking a step back from that, I realized that radio and film were just different ways of projecting a message and except in rare cases (such as the style of Stanley Kubrick) there was little room for interpretation. Ultimately, I think, this is why I turned to writing, because its black and white and despite the best attempts to present a message one way or the other, there is more room for interpretation by the audience. We really don’t tend to go back and research things we see on television or hear on the radio or see in films, but in a book, in a magazine, it seems logical to check another written source to verify information, and most standard styles require sources for citation. With the Internet, its even easier to research and verify–and also, to create false messages and information.
Words matter because its how we transmit our collective history and consciousness. Not all stories are relevant now, but they may be in the future. Before all of these new forms of media, there was simply the written and spoken word, and they were used to inform, to share, to educate, and (whether or not anyone wants to admit it) to control people.
It’s the responsibility of not only the speaker or writer to effectively communicate, but also the responsibility of the audience to interpret. (And I think the modern age has diminished that with some arrogant sense that we know everything because we’re SOOO very advanced.) The whole process of communication makes the receiver and the speaker/writer go hand in hand. We should take speakers very seriously. What people say does matter, if we agree with it or not. They are communicating something about their perspective on our world, and if that perspective is being skewed, there’s much more to the message they are projecting that the recievers need to properly interpret. Style and substance then become equally important, and our human ability to reason and analyze has to come out to play.
Really, all media should be an huge democratic forum, its the laziness of the audiences to simply accept the messages being lobbed and fired at them that diffuses and dilutes our societies and governments, and in some cases, empowers them beyond the publics’ ability to resist them.
Yeah, so, that really wasn’t a great answer, but its how I see it…
Wanda B. Ontheshelves says
Hey, thanks for the blog, it’s really helping me with cooking up a new novel!
Words, words, words. The thing I enjoy the most about this election is the phone calls. We have a ‘do not call number’ which is unlisted. The fine for reaching a ‘do not call’ number is $5,000 for the first offense. So far, I’ve received a tape-recorded message from one senator, his wife, and a *real*! person schilling for money. They all tell me the other side is bad. I say *they* are breaking the law. Gollee, Sarge!
Campaigns these days don’t care about words, per se; they care about a sound bite, something pithy enough to be repeated and meaningless enough not to bother the base-vote for that candidate.
This campaign is interesting, because the one candidate really discussing the issues came second a few times, but got no momentum. On the other hand, the candidate making real speeches got a lot of traction. Hmm.
a politician in my country–not US– made a very bad choice of words a few years ago when instead of saying “cunning stunts” he got the words mixed up and said, “stunning ….ahem…” The media had a field day with that one.
Norma Desmond says
I love words. But words have to mean something. Novels that have words that can be open to a number of different interpretations can be genius and beautiful. I love novels that can first be read one way, and then, after you reach the end, you go back and realize that you were reading a completely different novel than the one you thought. You then have a totally different experience reading a very different novel the second time.
I don’t, however, like having this experience with politicians. Politicians can move you with words, but more often, they affect the world with their actions. Often their actions don’t comport with their words. Their words say one thing but their policies and actions have a totally different effect. (I think of phrases like “The Civil Rights Act” used to describe propositions ENDING affirmative action.)
So. I like my politicians to speak with beautiful words, but it’s more important to me that the words be specific and demonstrative of concrete ideas that I agree with. And that are not vague enough to carry a totally different meaning later on. Ideally the words will also be backed up by a record of action in accordance with the words that I also agree with.
Ideally, charisma and pretty words would exist simultaneously with concrete and specific substance and actions that I agree with philosophically. But when I have to choose, I choose the latter.