August 24, 2008
Style vs. SubstanceBy Steve Feinstein
A well-educated friend of mine-whose opinion I respect-opined the other day that he was
My first comment has to do with the notion of ‘intelligence': Most people, including my good friend here, tend to regard superior public speaking ability and polished presentation skills as being reliable indicators of absolute intellectual capacity.
Although both intelligence and presentation skills are admirable qualities in a high-level politician, there is no absolute causal link between the two. John Kerry was widely regarded was being oh-so-much-more intelligent than George Bush during the 2004 campaign, but Kerry's grades at Yale were no better (actually, a tad worse), and his score on a military intelligence test they both took was lower. When told of that by Tim Russert, Kerry-terribly embarrassed that his ‘smarter' image had been blown-retorted, "Well, I must've been drunk the night before."
The point is not to get into some back-and-forth Bush-v-Kerry argument here; the point is that public verbal acuity is not necessarily a reliable indicator of actual intelligence vs. the mere appearance of intelligence.
Let's take a quick look at the public perception as put forth by the MSM of Republican vs. Democratic presidents elected since WWII:
Eisenhower ‘52-60 Lazy, golf-playing, do-nothing
Nixon ‘68-74 ‘Tricky Dick,' underhanded, stiff, out of touch
Ford ‘74-76 Clumsy, dull, boring
Reagan ‘80-88 Aimiable-but-boarderline-senile, war monger
Bush I ‘88-92 Unimaginative, milquetoast
Bush II '00-08 Unintelligent, simple-minded, unsophisticated
Kennedy '60-63 Brilliant, inspiring, headed in a fresh new direction
Johnson '63-68 Compassionate, visionary
Carter '76-80 Intellectual, detail-oriented
Clinton '92-00 Rhodes scholar, our smartest President ever, brilliant by any measure
Republican Presidents are routinely cast as less intelligent than their Democratic counterparts. That intentional type-casting by the MSM is not likely to change.
But this is not my colleague's main point. While it's easy to establish that the current President Bush's numerous verbal faux pas have undermined his standing as an ‘intellectual' in the eyes of the MSM, is there any actual direct link between effective governing and the skillful presentation of policy initiatives?
Not on the international stage.
While it could be argued that President Bush would have had more domestic policy successes if he had taken his case directly to the American public more often, that was really a failure on his part to use the ‘bully pulpit' more effectively. President Bush let too many attacks by his political opposition (both in Congress and in the media) go unanswered, for days on end. In politics, "a charge unanswered is a charge confirmed." He let the Democrats have the first and last word far too often. It wasn't so much his verbal style as much as it was his flawed communications strategy of non-engagement.
Many Conservatives, including President Bush, mistakenly think that it's the merits of the issue that count in shaping public opinion, so therefore, he often didn't respond when he thought the ‘truth' of the issue would prevail all by itself.
Liberals, for whatever reason, are far more in tune with the communicative nuances of massaging the nature of the message and then tweaking the image of the messenger. Some people posit that it's because they have had decades of practice in pandering to special-interest voting groups and therefore they know how to sharpen a message for any occasion. Others say that it's because many liberal policies are so preposterous than even liberals themselves don't buy into them, so they've learned how to lie with a straight face when presenting them. (Sort of like defense attorneys defending a murderer holding a dripping knife, while he proclaims his innocence. They're all Democrats also.)
Granted, the preceding paragraph was very much tongue-in-cheek, but as the saying goes, "Many a truth is spoken in jest." In any event, President Bush did not play the communications/media card correctly during his tenure, and that hurt his image, and therefore his ability to shape public opinion.
Note that that has nothing whatsoever to do with his propensity to misspeak. His down-home, folksy, ‘everyman' use of language was a detriment mostly to the Northeastern/California elites and the MSM, who wouldn't have supported his policies anyway, regardless of how well he spoke. President Bush made more of a strategy error in not speaking often enough directly to the American people. It wasn't so much his verbal style as it was the lack of frequency. That's just poor communications planning and response.
Internationally, it's a completely different story. There an old cliché in Washington DC that applies to international relations just as well:
"If you want a friend, buy a dog."
Nations are not ‘friends' of other nations. Nations act purely in their self-interests. Although many actions and responses can be viewed as being ‘friendly' or ‘supportive,' if those actions were not in the direct interests of the originator country, then the action wouldn't be undertaken.
In international relations, it's the actions and policies that count: Trade embargos/tariffs, military treaties/alliances, immigration policies, tax laws, etc. Countries are interested in "what's in it for them." If a major trading partner throws up a 20% import tariff in a fit of protectionist rage, or a potential adversary violates a weapons agreement, then no amount of flowery rhetoric is going to make a difference. Business is business, security is security, and money is money-and like water, they all seek their own level. If the Soviet Union gets too frisky, you deploy Pershing missiles in Europe to get them to back down. You don't tiptoe around and say, "пожалуйста." It's actions that count internationally, not words.
Make no mistake: France under Chirac in 2002 wasn't opposed to the US/Britain-led coalition going into Iraq because of President Bush's rough ‘cowboy talk'; it was opposed because France had lucrative business interests with Hussein's Iraq that would be terminated by US/UK military action again Hussein's regime. It was the substance, not the style, of President Bush's communications that mattered to France.
To sum up: Is it better to have a politician who is both intelligent and well-spoken? Well, like your grandmother's chicken soup, it couldn't hoit.
But, since every Republican president since Eisenhower has been portrayed by the MSM as ‘stupid, shifty, clumsy, or lazy,' they need a communications strategy that takes that into account, and Republicans need to stop thinking that just the merits of the issue are what carry the domestic public argument. Effective communications strategy (frequent Network appearances to explain policy, immediate, clear, and forceful, response to distorting attacks by Democratic adversaries, etc-none of which President Bush did consistently) counts for far more during the process of getting elected and in maintaining a decent level of public support for domestic policies, but communications style, per se, is very close to irrelevant in international relations.