Apparently, a lot of people consider President Obama to be bumblingly inarticulate. “The guy can’t talk his way out of a paper bag!” a reader wrote to me recently. “Sarah Palin is a brilliant speaker. It’s the president whose sentences are undiagrammable,” said another in response to a column I wrote about Palin. It’s not just my readers, nor is it exclusively conservatives, who hold this view. A Google search of “does Obama have a speech impediment” turns up several pages of discussion among the president’s supporters and critics alike.Admittedly, the president is given to a lot of pauses, “uhs” and sputtering starts to his sentences. As polished as he often is before large crowds (where the adjective “soaring” is often applied to his speeches), his impromptu speaking frequently calls to mind a doctoral candidate delivering a wobbly dissertation defense.
But consider this: It’s not that Obama can’t speak clearly. It’s that he employs the intellectual stammer. Not to be confused with a stutter, which the president decidedly does not have, the intellectual stammer signals a brain that is moving so fast that the mouth can’t keep up. The stammer is commonly found among university professors, characters in Woody Allen movies and public thinkers of the sort that might appear on C-SPAN but not CNN. If you’re a member or a fan of that subset, chances are the president’s stammer doesn’t bother you; in fact, you might even love him for it (he sounds just like your grad school roommate, especially when he drank too much Scotch and attempted to expound on the Hegelian dialectic!).
If you’re not, chances are you find yourself yelling “get to the point already!” at the television screen every time Obama’s search for the right word seems to last longer than the search for Osama bin Laden. And thanks to its echoes of the college lecture hall, you may think it comes across as ever so slightly (or more than slightly) left wing.
That’s kind of ironic, given that the godfather of the intellectual stammer is arguably none other than the paterfamilias of the conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr. With his slouch, his glazed-eyed stare and a speaking style that suggested the entire Oxford English Dictionary was flipping through his mind while he searched for a word like “dithyramb,” he makes Obama’s extemporaneous speech seem canned — not to mention pedestrian — by comparison. In fact, if the people critiquing Obama’s meandering speech patterns were to see an old “Firing Line” segment, I daresay they would think Buckley was drunk or otherwise impaired.
Granted, Buckley didn’t hold political office (he made an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York in 1965). He was more an observer than a decider, which is pretty much the opposite of what you need to be to lead a nation. Obama, as much as his critics might hate to admit it, is more than a phlegmatic egghead. He’s proved he can act decisively; whatever his faults, he’s leading the nation far more effectively — albeit less colorfully — than Buckley would have led New York. (When asked what he’d do if he won the mayoral election, he famously responded, “Demand a recount.”)
Obama’s problem is not that he’s an intellectual (for the sake of argument let’s define it as someone who is scholarly, broadly informed and distinguished as a thinker). It’s that he sounds like an intellectual. Unlike other presumed political brainiacs — Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, for example — he isn’t able to bury his ideas behind a folksy regional accent or good-old-boy affectations when he wants to. Nor is he effective at “keeping it real” when he falls into traditionally African American cadences that he clearly never used when he was growing up.
By speaking as though he hails from everywhere, he ends up being from nowhere. The result is that people look at him and see not a Hawaiian or a Chicagoan or even a black man, but a university man.
Of course, the president enables that stigma by stammering his way through town hall meetings and other public dialogues as though they were philosophy lectures. Irritating? Sure. But inarticulate? Sorry, folks, but you’ll have to find another adjective. And take your time. The right word is usually worth waiting for.