Commentary: Those plain talkin' politicians

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverAugust 14, 2012 

What is it that makes some politicians, despite being well-educated, silk-stockinged and pedigreed, try to speak like a field hand – or at least as though they’d never set foot inside an English class?

We’re not talking about the occasional expletive: Everyone does that. (If you say you don’t, do as Redd Foxx famously suggested and slam your hand in a car door.)

I call it political linguistic slumming – PLS – and the most recent egregious example is being committed by gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory in his new TV ad. Click here to find out more!

McCrory ends the ad by saying, in his most folksy, aw-shucks manner, “I’m Pat McCrory, and I’m ruuunnin’ for governor.”

What the ...

Linguistic slumming

Does McCrory think that properly enunciating his words and pronouncing the “g” will make him seem too smart, too learned for us Tar Heels who aren’t from Charlotte?

This is no partisan affront to our intelligence, so keep your cowardly unsigned letters and Internet responses to yourselves. Politicians of all stripes do it: Harvard-educated President Barack Obama, speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus last year, said, “Stop complainin.’ ”

When an Associated Press reporter wrote a story quoting him as saying “stop complainin’ – even though the reporter had the official transcript that contained the “g” – some people mystifyingly accused the wire service of dissin’ the president.

Oy. Equally mystifying is why politicians have this fear of sounding intelligent.

One suspects that politicians who are well-educated, though, cynically try to strike a populist, folksy tone by playing down their intellect. They seek to convey, as near as I can tell, that “Hey, y’all. I’m just like you. While my opponent has been gettin’ colleged up, I been too busy workin’ to worry about learnin’ how to talk good.”

Perhaps the distrust of anyone who was “too smart” started in the 1960s, when Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew declared war on a straw enemy comprised of “pointy-headed, Eastern-educated elitists” who thought they knew better than the average citizen what the country needed.

Suspiciously well-mannered

The fact is that if you observe the rules of etiquette, speak well or comport yourself properly, you may be viewed with suspicion, even disdain. Don’t even think of being polysyllabic.

Many years ago while on a double-date with my college roommate and two young ladies, I was in the backseat desperately pitching woo to my unreceptive date when I deigned to use a word that had more than the proscribed number of syllables – apparently two.

The two women laughed, and my otherwise articulate roommate pulled to the side of the road, turned around and, with anger disproportionate to any offense I might have committed, said: “Man, don’t nobody want to hear that kinda talk outside the classroom. It’s Saturday night.”

I calmly explained that because I was paying a lot of money to learn those words, I was going to use them.

Whatever words I used that night obviously didn’t work: I never saw the woman again.

Speaking of illiteracy, in a column last week I improperly used the term “tow the line,” which would’ve been correct had I been referring to pulling my dinghy. I meant to write “toe the line,” implying that one group wanted everyone to do and think as it did.

The good news: A handful of alert readers caught the error and told me what a #$%& I was.

The bad news: Many other readers didn’t catch the error – but told me what a #$%& I was anyway.

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