The Ripon Forum

Volume 42, No. 4

Aug - Sept 2008 Issue

It’s More Than Just Words

By on November 30, 2015

The importance of tone in politics


One of my best friends is a retired clergyman. When he was in seminary, a professor told him that he could wander around theologically wherever he pleased, as long as he chained himself to the rock on which was written the word “Resurrection.”


The current problem is that many Republicans have chained themselves to a number of words that they use as incantations, somehow believing their reputation will guarantee them victory or protect them from defeat.

Some words are like that, abiding and meaningful, words like love, kindness, friendship, integrity, and we should chain ourselves to them as we go through life.

The current problem is that many Republicans have chained themselves to a number of words that they use as incantations, somehow believing their repetition will guarantee them victory or protect them from defeat. Instead, whether you agree with the words or not, their constant use — without intellectual challenge or support — deprives us of the political depth and vitality that gives a party strength and confidence.

Today’s Republican stump speech is the political equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation. Here is a typical Republican congressional candidate’s speech in PowerPoint form:

• Reagan Republican

• Hillary zinger (laughter

and applause)

• Washington’s wasteful spending

• Limited government

• Our troops (standing ovation)

• Pro-life/family values/sanctity of marriage

• Greatest country in the world

Sometimes, when I hear Republican speeches larded with the knee-jerk, base-tested words, it reminds me of the worn Henny Youngman story about the group of comedians who had a numbered list of the world’s best jokes. One of them would say, “Number 17” and all the others would double over laughing hysterically.

Today a Republican candidate will call out “Number 8” and expect the audience to react with applause and knowing validation. But is that the basis for a political party?

What is the voice of Republicans today? Is it firm, reasonable and reassuring or is it a more strident voice with harsher words but weaker still.

These commonly invoked words have lost the power they once had. This certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t words with power. Democrats rightfully should be afraid of the words, “driver licenses for illegal aliens.” But you cannot sustain a party on wedge words alone or on the tired, tried and true old favorites. Times change.

Take the popular and much-used words, “Reagan Republican.” I hear candidates running around saying they are Reagan Republicans, meaning, among other things, that they are optimists, because as everyone knows RR was an optimist. But he had a darker Armageddon side that tempered his blind optimism and made him more intellectually interesting. He was not the Republican version of Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior. Reagan had a seasoned and developed political philosophy that was based on far more than a buoyant heart.

Or consider “Washington’s wasteful spending.” When it comes to Republicans reining in spending on pork, they are Profiles in Porridge. Backbones of oatmeal. To mean something, words must have some credibility behind them. Let’s face it, we have lost our credibility on fiscal prudence. The majority of Republicans in the Congress prefer earmarks over the earnestness of real convictions. They have spent their children’s inheritance, which they bemoan as if they were not involved in the plunder, and they have also spent their party’s own political inheritance, which had been earned over the decades.

“Limited government” should be a Republican strength, but we have lost credibility. Can someone tell me what we Republicans were doing in the middle of the Terri Schiavo case? Talk about government sticking its nose in the middle of a private family decision. It appears we abandon the core principle of limited government if it involves one of our powerful constituencies.

Anyway, you get the point. We Republicans have kept repeating the same words long after we abandoned them. The voters finally noticed. So, the road back is about more than using or finding the right words; it is about regaining the credibility behind those words, whether they are old or new.

It is also about changing the tone that Republican words have acquired over the years.

Psychological/physiological research shows that a soft voice relaxes the body of the listener. In fact, therapists sometimes use an established technique called guided imagery, where a soothing voice leads the individual to a different inner time and place to encourage reflection.

Parties and politicians have voices, too.

If someone wants to be a real Reagan Republican, he should listen to the tone of Reagan’s voice. It could be firm, absolutely, but its natural tone was relaxed and reassuring. The power of his tone came not just from the warm, golden-honeyed radio announcer’s physical voice but from an underlying reasonableness and approachability.

As one of his speechwriters, I would sometimes write a line that I thought he would deliver with force, and he would surprise me by delivering it softly. I would feel disappointed that he did not go for the applause line; it took me years to understand why he didn’t. Sometimes those applauding are not the ones you want to reach.

His famous question in the 1980 presidential race, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” is both subtler and stronger than a pedestrian applause line like, “My fellow Republicans, this country is worse off after four years of the Carter Administration and it is time for them to go!”

Which tone is more reasonable, more inclusive, more thoughtful?

What is the voice of Republicans today? Is it firm, reasonable and reassuring or is it a more strident voice with harsher words but weaker will? The Republican voice certainly is not more strident than the Democratic voice, but that is faint praise.

My instincts tell me that a change in tone could liberate the Republican Party, free us from the straitjacket of increasingly empty words and begin to rebuild a connection to the voters.

This party needs to relax and breathe. It needs to take some risks. It needs to actively encourage a greater range of views and to take confidence in that variety.

The Republican Party will be on the path to renewal when it puts away the worn-out buzzwords aimed at a shrinking base and decides to develop the confident, credible, reassuring attitude necessary to reestablish our political integrity and energy.

If we get the tone right, the words will follow. RF 

Landon Parvin is a ghostwriter for political and corporate leaders.

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