Tone and style

Coverage of Bush’s fairly long interview on NPR has attended almost entirely to the content. What struck me listening to it , however, especially as we didn’t learn much new objectively, was the president’s tone, or rather tones. It must have especially stuck in his craw to vouchsafe this interview to NPR, and this event was almost entirely in his two worst styles. The first is an impatient condescension, dissembling great patience with anyone so stupid as not to understand what is clear to him. The second, predominant in the WIlliams interview, is an abased whining, a tone that pleads for some sort of abuse to stop and for the interlocutor (or everyone) to see that he’s really a Good Person, Means Well, and would wag his tail and lick your face if only you would stop beating him. It is the universal manner of a bully who meets someone bigger.

I find this whimpering almost impossible to listen to, especially when it’s crosswise to the words being used; Bush now says he’s making decisions in the same pleading tone of voice students use asking to have their grades raised when they know they haven’t got a case. Added to the man’s maladroit, stumbling English, it’s a completely disagreeable and pathetic spectacle.

I’m uncertain how much this kind of thing should count, compared with the objective content of a politician’s discourse. Surely some right-thinking and smart people just don’t present themselves well; is it fair to disregard them because they need an acting coach? In this category I put Hillary Clinton, someone whose every public appearance sets my teeth on edge. To me she sounds so brittle, rehearsed, and tense that I am driven to a transcript (Bush’s transcripts lately don’t help him much, I should note). I worry that her poll numbers will collapse as more people hear and see her and not just about her, and if this happens after she’s nominated it would be very bad news. In contrast, Jim Webb was so competent and unaffected after the SOTU that I would have bought a bridge from him, a reaction that obviously raises another set of risks.

[I may be having an idiosyncratic reaction, or an episode of sexism. As to the latter, I reassure myself that while Nancy Pelosi is in no way my favorite speaker, nor a distinguished one objectively, she doesn’t trigger the same skin crawl. I’ve also been warming up for a teaching gig in France by listening to French TV and, boy, is Ségolène Royal an impressive package. She speaks in sentences and paragraphs, thinks on her feet, doesn’t lose her cool or bully interviewers, and comes across as someone with neither insecurity, false modesty nor arrogance (and I’m not especially aligned with her policies). ]

Williams was very light on followup. I think it’s time to stop treating Bush as one treats a grownup, competent, honest leader; respect for the office is not a bottomless well. In events like this, reporters need to stay on a question until they get an answer, even if that means they don’t get to all the topics in their outline. To refuse to answer a question is a president’s prerogative, at whatever political cost or gain it entails. To run the clock by pretending to answer is not playing the game, and reporters are not obliged to collaborate with cheating.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.