June 13, 2004

And, Yes, He Was a Great Communicator

By GEOFFREY NUNBERG

RONALD REAGAN is 'a great communicator.' " That was already the conventional wisdom in 1976, according to a column that year by Russell Baker in The New York Times. By the time of Mr. Reagan's inauguration in 1981, the phrase had grown capital letters and acquired the definite article that shifted the sense of "great" from "terrific" to the honorific superlative in descriptions like The Great Commoner and The Great McGinty.

Mr. Reagan's adroitness at refashioning the traditional forms of presidential communication stemmed to a large degree from his ability to address the public directly. He learned that language during his years in Hollywood, but it came from sources not usually associated with his political career.

In the last presidential debate of 1980, President Jimmy Carter began his concluding statement by referring to the voters in the third person: "The American people now are facing, next Tuesday, a lonely decision." But Mr. Reagan understood that the real audience of the debate was not the reporters but the viewers at home. "Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls," he began, and proceeded to ask the famous question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

The State of the Union address had been televised since Truman's time, but Mr. Reagan transformed the annual speech into a made-for-TV event, seeding the gallery with heroes for the cameras to cut to, like Lenny Skutnik, who had dived into the Potomac to save a woman's life. When Mr. Reagan said, "Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her," the pronoun "you" clearly referred to the viewers, not the assembled legislators, who were relegated to the role of a studio audience.

But Mr. Reagan's real achievement was in mastering a language that made his communication with the public sound immediate and sincere. His style has often been described as conversational, and it's true that his language was informal even in his most solemn addresses. No earlier president would have begun a sentence of his Inaugural Address with "well."

But like Franklin Roosevelt with his fireside chats, Mr. Reagan understood that a genuinely conversational style isn't appropriate for addressing an anonymous public. (President Clinton's gift for genuine one-on-one exchanges was evident when we listened in on his televised town hall meetings, but his direct addresses to the people had none of Mr. Reagan's immediacy.) What's required, rather, is a stylized language that simulates the intimacy of conversation without actually partaking of it.

Take the concessive phrase "and, yes," which shows up more than 200 times in the speeches collected at the Reagan Presidential Library: "the ability, dedication and, yes, patriotism of you here who are her crew"; "the ideas, the muscle, the moral courage and, yes, the spiritual strength that built the greatest, freest nation the world has ever known."

The device suggests a speaker who isn't ashamed to appeal to sentimentality or stand on simple principle, and obliquely rebukes those who might find expressions of spirituality or patriotism embarrassing. ("The Washington establishment may think it sounds corny, but we still believe in the people," as Mr. Reagan would sometimes make the point in a more explicit way.)

This isn't a device people use at their breakfast table. ("Pass me the cream and, yes, another bagel.") Like much of Mr. Reagan's language, it was a legacy of the left, drawn from the sentimental populism of the movies and plays of 1930's and 40's. Those scripts in turn shaped newsreel and documentary narrations like the ones that Mr. Reagan did during the war for the military.

That's where Mr. Reagan acquired his predilection for polysyndeton, the rhetorical term for the piling on of "and" and "or": "We've come to Hammonton, just as we went to Elizabeth and Hoboken and Doylestown and Buffalo and Endicott and Waterbury, because you're what America is all about." Or, "Here in Wyoming, back where your farmers and ranchers and workers and small-business people dream big and toil hard to make dreams come true."

Those rolling conjunctions evoke the pattern that writers of the 30's and 40's used when they wanted to evoke the artless effusions of the common man. You hear Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath." Or Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life": "The money's not here," he says in "It's a Wonderful Life." "Your money's in Joe's house . . . and in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house and a hundred others." And, "Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community."

Or you hear Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington": "There's no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties."

You could argue that that voice was the creation of Mr. Reagan's speechwriters. But other politicians haven't been able to duplicate that tone, however skilled their writers are. Whether or not you think Mr. Reagan believed what he was saying, he clearly believed in the way he was saying it. As his speechwriter Peter Robinson observed: "We were not creating Reagan. We were stealing from him."

Mr. Reagan's language belonged to the generation he grew up with, and no national politician has yet found a modern-day equivalent for it. Perhaps one will emerge from the equally artificial informality of talk radio, but Mr. Reagan's models are out of reach for us. We make allowances for his rhetoric in the same way we make allowances for Frank Capra's, as natural for its age. But nobody can make movies like those anymore.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard on NPR's "Fresh Air'' and is author of "Going Nucular'' (PublicAffairs, 2004).


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