I studied speech communication in college before switching my major to journalism and took courses in public speaking, persuasion and American oratory. While that does not make me an expert, I still feel justified in saying that President Bush is a lousy public speaker.
There is something about Bush’s speeches that has always bothered me (aside from the content) and until the other day I couldn't quite say what it was. But yesterday NPR interviewed a professor of speech communications who analyzed Bush's inauguration speech and I think he nailed it. He replayed specific parts of Bush's speech and showed how Bush puts the emphasis on the wrong words. For example, when Bush says "At this second gathering..." he puts the emphasis on the word 'gathering' rather than on the word 'second.' He also pauses at awkward moments and doesn't have a natural rhythm in his cadence. What is sounds like is somebody struggling to read a difficult passage for the first time, with no idea how the sentence is going to end before they start reading it.
The professor noted that past presidents like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton could make a speech sound better than it read on paper. Bush, he said, is the opposite. His speeches are better when you read them and sound worse when you hear them.
The professor speculated that Bush just doesn't like public speaking and is perhaps daydreaming about being back on his Crawford ranch in the middle of his speeches. He certainly doesn't make me want to continue listening. I am usually upset by some of the things he is saying, but then hearing him struggle through the speech like a junior high school kid being forced to read aloud from his textbook in front of the whole class is just painful.
One thing that Bush doesn't do is veer away from the text. So we don't get any of those endearing, mixed-up phrases that defined his father's speaking style. A good public speaker knows what he is going to say and only uses the prepared text or the teleprompter as a guide. They can read their audience and know when to elaborate on a point or cut another point short. Not Bush. He reads straight through the prepared text like it was chiseled on stone.
The good news, at least, is we will never have to be subjected to another inauguration speech by George W. Thank God.
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