September 17, 2012

How they say it

Even before Mitt Romney gave his big acceptance speech at the Republican convention, the pundits were dissecting how he spoke as much as what he said. It's good to remember John Althouse Cohen's observation that

Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can "connect" with most people is actually unlike most people.

But applying Occam's Razor to the question of how, there's a simple explanation for why Romney gives a speech the way he does.

As Orson Scott Card describes here, the Mormon church is the equivalent of Toastmasters International. Local churches are run by a lay clergy, so the average member ends up giving lots of sermons (Mormons call them "talks").

Because the church promotes exclusively from within, this mutually-reinforcing speaking style influences, and is highly influenced by, how high church officials speak.

The gold standard of Mormon sermonizing is the church's semiannual General Conference. There's one coming up in October. It'll be on cable. Or go here and see where Mitt Romney learned how to talk in public.

My sister hears some of Thomas Monson's mannerisms in Romney's speeches. I've been not listening to Monson as long as I've been alive (he's been a big Mormon Pooh-Bah that long), and Romney's not that bad.

I say not listening because the way Monson delivers a talk drives me nuts. I really do believe he's 100 percent sincere, and millions hang on his every word. But there's certainly no accounting for rhetorical taste.

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# posted by Anonymous jnw
9/17/2012 2:49 PM   
I agree with you about Pres. Monson's talks. However, I believe he is sincere because so many of the people who work with him one on one become dedicated to him.

I prefer the Hinckley type speaker myself.

However, I can't stand to listen to Obama's talks. So who does he resemble?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
9/18/2012 8:39 AM   
If Romney is the seasoned stake president (literally!) who's spent (a few too many) years behind the pulpit, Obama is the brash young mission president who's convinced that one more super-inspiring sermon and twice (or three times!) as much zeal as last time will convert the world to the cause. (And if not, you should have had more faith.)
# posted by Anonymous Dan
9/18/2012 4:55 PM   
Both Romney and Obama share an unconquerable desire to succeed. Romney wins through incredible analytic effort. He will outwork anyone to produce the answer his client wants. Obama succeeds through brilliant, unashamed, ladder climbing. He will outmaneuver and exploit any and every insider to win the game of politics.

In this light both are polar opposites. Romney is the most earnest man in the world. Obama the most shameless.

But they are peas in the same pod when it comes to communication. Both are terribly mediocre.

Oh, people like to believe Obama is a great communicator (that is what one is supposed to say about a man like Obama) but the results are in and they are undeniable. Obama can excite his sycophants but everyone else finds him to be a bore.

Romney is no better. His problem is the man cannot think in the abstract. He cannot make a philosophical argument.

Consider his 47% quip. It is factually wrong! Many of the 47% who do not pay income taxes will vote Republican. Why would Romney claim otherwise? It is because for Romney the 47% is concrete and that forms the basis of his argument.

Romney's argument actually has merit. It represents a clear delineation between him and Obama. But to base the argument on the 47% who do not pay income taxes is dumb! It not only distracts from the point but it is inaccurate.

But the 47% means something to Romney. It is an important number. And so Romney uses it but in the wrong way. His sycophants eat it up. His detractors express offense. And those who actually want a politician who can make a rational, philosophical argument wonder why there cannot be a door #3.

# posted by Anonymous Dan
9/18/2012 5:02 PM   
Elder Holland consistently gives some of the best General Conference talks. I believe the fact he was a professor of Literature has something to do with that.
# posted by Blogger Joe
9/18/2012 7:19 PM   
Romney is very left-brained, but I do think he is influenced by the weird tendency of Mormon leaders (though not exclusive to them by any means) to use illogical syllogisms. It typically manifests itself as "if bad people do X, doing X will make you bad."

In short, they create Venn Diagrams by assuming an intersection, degree of intersection (and causation) is greater than it really is.

Romney was doing exactly that. Once force to justify his remarks, he could probably see the fallacy of his own logic, but he can't admit to it any more than church leaders can. (Moreover, following the concepts of repentance, he can say "I'm sorry" and it's as though it never happened. At least Romney seems self-aware; Obama strikes me as the opposite.)
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/23/2012 4:27 PM   
What struck me during the conventions is how intensely reserved both Obama and Romney are. They also appear to both be introverts. Reserve doesn't automatically translate into introversion. Dubya is an introvert but not a reserved one. But there seems to be this moment with all politicians where they either cross the great divide to the great public or stay party animals.

Reagan could cross the great divide with his vision. Clinton could cross it (and still can) with his great need to be loved. The Bushes couldn't much. I've always had a soft spot for Dubya mostly because after 45 minutes of playing to the cameras, he'd just start looking bored.

Both Obama and Romney are far more political animals. After 45 minutes, they just keep going. But the feeling of intense reserve increases. Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention was basically, "Stop telling me I'm not good at my job" which may work for hard-core party members but falls a bit flat otherwise.

For independents in Maine and northern Maine conservatives, the biggest hang-up will be the stereotype that Dan mentions: the image of Romney as a heartless financier. They may not vote for Obama but if they don't vote against him (for Romney), they will vote for a third-party candidate.

Me, I'm voting for Ryan. I have a soft spot not just for bored politicians but for self-amused, occasionally self-deprecating ones.