By the time you read this, the president of the United States for the next four years will have been elected. Or, if the race is extremely close, and depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court justices are feeling that day, he will have been appointed. Either outcome, however, still leaves certain election issues unresolved. Namely, how exactly did the winning candidate defeat the other? How did each candidate’s words play into the voting decisions of the American people?
There is one man that had the privilege of shaping our current presidential future. The chance to mold the minds, souls, and words of President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry. The golden opportunity to challenge the impressionable, still developing platforms of the then-undergraduates that would soon impressively divide a nation. The man, if one can call him only that, is the late Rollin Osterweis. A professor of oratory and debate coach at Yale, Rollins taught Bush and Kerry in his History of American Oratory class. Although he died in 1982, the teacher conducted the extremely popular – and considered extremely easy – course for over 25 years, while also coaching the university’s debate team. In the class, students studied famous addresses by American historical leaders, culminating with each student delivering a speech of his own. The course only accepted sixteen students, often with a long waiting list; but afterwards, only Kerry went on to join Ostwerseis’ team. However, both politicians undoubtedly gained invaluable tricks of the rhetoric trade that still influence their speaking styles today. Above the facts of being distant cousins and brothers of the mud (they rolled around in it for Skull and Bones initiations), the tie that formed from both being pupils of a Yale great is a tie that truly bonds. From Bush’s simplistic, direct appeals to Kerry’s stylized, “I’m the new JFK” approach, each candidate is employing classic oratorical techniques to sway the pockets of American companies and the minds of the American people.
“Well, one thing I’ve noticed is that they are speaking to two different audiences: pretty much, that Kerry is speaking to the undecided voters, by separating his own personal view and the obligations he has as a leader of a country,” Crystel Harris ’06 said. Harris cited Kerry’s statements during the last presidential debate concerning his personal, Catholic-influenced views on abortion and the inability of the government to use religion in enacting law. Kerry’s use of principles to move the audience is a component of his distinctive style. Having been called stiff, formal, pompous, and long-winded, Kerry’s rhetorical style has also been viewed as elevating and presidential, with Kerry’s formality belying his experience and serious stances. Whether or not Kerry (with or without the newly included “F.” in his name) has been able to connect with the average voter remains to be seen, however, as accusations of “flip-flopping” and being unclear about his positions still plague the candidate.
“It was obvious that in the last debate, Kerry clearly had more debating experience – I felt like he took more notes, seemed more prepared,” Kathryn Anne Kerner ’06 said. Concerning Bush, she added, “I’m so used to his Bushisms and since there are books out there that make fun of his speaking, he will always be at a disadvantage in a debate. It would be like someone from Whig-Clio debating me.” This apparent difference in skill – perhaps Ostwerseis paid a bit more attention to some students than others? – has led many viewers, pollsters, and pundits alike to declare Kerry the winner of the first two presidential debates. Yet others point to certain elements of Bush’s style that have a greater effect than Kerry’s on potential voters. His colloquial dialect that seeks to appeal to the “common man” often employs repetition of simple, strong phrases vital to his points. If we ever hear “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” again, it would probably be too soon. “I think his speaking style is clear and direct, and it’s the clarity of the message that he presents that is making me vote for him,” Matthew Gold ’06 reiterated.
But what about the politically unsure and disinterested: how are they being influenced? When apathetic voter Diana Chang ’06 was asked about her view of the presidential styles, she naturally stated, “Well, being apathetic, means that I’ve never heard them speak.” Adding, “Whenever they came on TV, I’d change the channel,” Chang introduced the view that maybe Ostwerseis was not as powerful as previously thought. It has been said that the prizes in the fight over the American ballots, the so-called swing voters, are actually not swinging at all due to the debates; rather, the people watching are already decided voters seeking affirmation of the superiority of their candidates.
Speaking of superiority, who would Ostwerseis have thought to be the better candidate, in terms of rhetorical style and mass appeal? In an interview with NPR, former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, who was also a pupil of Ostwerseis, said, “I don’t think he would have ever told anyone in public who how he judged the winner of the debate – he would have been so proud of them both. He would have picked a winner in his own mind but he would have never communicated that to anyone else.” In honor of Ostwerseis we can only wonder. And then try to persuade everyone else, with pithy slogans of course, of our opinions.