With Super Tuesday upon us, and its blizzard of last-minute candidate speech making, it's time to finally face the question: What importance do voters actually place on a politician's oratorical skill? This essential quality, about which Americans are deeply conflicted and in denial, has rightly surged to center stage in this year's Democratic primary race.
There are two main reasons for this. First, the meteoric rise of Barack Obama is largely attributable to a single speech he delivered four years ago at the national party convention in Boston. There may be no other American political figure whose career has been so profoundly enhanced by one instance of oratory.
Second, Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken pains to undercut Senator Obama by accusing him of dazzling voters with fancy rhetorical flourishes. "Words are not action," Senator Clinton asserted in the final New Hampshire debate. "As beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."
Admittedly, Clinton's remarks were mostly a tactical ploy (her husband was often similarly accused, and for similar reasons). Nonetheless, she has inadvertently highlighted our troubled attitude concerning the value of political public speaking.
Americans believe that oratorical skill is a legitimate reflection of intellectual acuity and depth of character. Then again, we believe it also is merely a form of flimflam, a practiced slickness shrewdly employed by those wishing to distract us from substantive shortcomings.
The notion of the "good talker" has long vexed Americans. Eloquent and slick are often perceived as two sides of the same coin, and our history contains as many examples of being bamboozled by inspiring charlatans as being inspired by bona fide visionaries.
Yet most of us believe there's a correlation, and possibly a very strong one, between verbal skill and intellectual aptitude. On the other hand, most of us know good people who are not particularly good with words, and bright individuals who regularly stumble and stutter. Some may prefer straight talk, but "plain-spoken" remains a mark of praise mostly when it describes someone's integrity, not their speaking style.
Regardless, speeches, debates, and press conferences remain a vital means by which we can gain an unfiltered glimpse of who these candidates are and how they express themselves in formats that are not wholly under their control. This is especially true in the up-close-and-personal church basements and the high school gyms of the primaries.
Despite the central role of the spoken word in political campaigns, most voters are woefully ill-equipped to judge candidates on the basis of their ability to give speeches. We rarely attend speeches or lectures except in mandatory classroom or business settings, and have about as much framework for forming critical opinions concerning whether an orator is sharp or lame, sincere or deceptive, as we would about the finer points of ballet.
We do ourselves serious harm with this inexperience, detachment, and inattention. Unable to formulate opinions that go much beyond blind hunches, we resort to a range of sloppy, superficial proxy considerations like the one that seems to have delivered us President Bush: a good ole boy we'd like to plunk down and have a coke with.
The joke, of course, is on us. We'll never get a chance to kick our feet up with the prez. But we are certainly going to listen to him or her, over and over, give speeches, confront the press, and explain – in words – what lies ahead. For better or worse, we are electing the "president of the spoken word."
Voting for a candidate based solely on speaking ability would be folly. But to dismiss such a capability as incidental or unimportant leaves a mighty large gap in the checklist of virtues we hunger to assess in our would-be political leaders. And that gap will almost certainly be filled by characteristics – such as compassion – that are less relevant to the real demands of the job and a lot harder to pin down.
Spoken words, slight as they are, still represent our best opportunity to "know" these candidates (yes, better than TV ads, celebrity endorsements, spit-polished résumés and rejiggered position papers). Yet without voters prepared to be discerning listeners, it will be an opportunity squandered.
• Bob Katz has written widely about public speaking. He is the author of "Elaine's Circle: A Teacher, a Student, a Classroom, and One Unforgettable Year."