Old Yeller

by Jesse Zwick | March 17, 2011

When five likely Republican presidential candidates addressed the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in early March, observers may have noticed something odd about Tim Pawlenty: He appeared to have had a voice transplant. Pawlenty’s normal speaking style could be described as mild-mannered: He began his speech to the 2008 Republican convention by squeaking, “We’re really glad that you’re in Minnesota. Are you appreciating our Minnesota hospitality?” The persistent perception has been that he sounds too dull to be president.

In Iowa, though, Pawlenty projected—actually, shouted—his message: “Valley Forge wasn’t easy! Settling the West wasn’t easy! Winning World War Two wasn’t easy! Going to the moon wasn’t easy!” His reedy voice strained against its limits, and he spoke in spasmodic outbursts, at times pointing jerkily for emphasis. Pawlenty also seemed to be trying out a twang—“This ain’t about easy. This is about rollin’ up our sleeves, plowin’ ahead, and getting the job done!”—and repeatedly referred to the group’s president as “Chuck” (his first name is Steve). The shift in vocal tactics wasn’t boring; but it was definitely unsettling.

So why was Pawlenty shouting? The former Minnesota governor is far from the first candidate to attempt a vocal transformation. Politicians began altering their speaking style with the advent of widespread recording, notes Greg Goodale, a professor at Northeastern University and author of Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age. Teddy Roosevelt “was the first president to switch from a high style of speaking, where every vowel was pronounced and every word was uttered in a manner that allowed each word to stand on its own, to allowing some of his words to merge,” says Goodale. “In the 1912 campaign, all the candidates were recorded ... and it wasn’t just Roosevelt, but also later Taft and Wilson and William Jennings Bryan who all switched over to that more accessible and friendly style.”

When politicians start shouting, they are usually attempting to establish their populist bona fides, says Mary Anne Trasciatti, a professor of speech communication at Hofstra University. “There’s a tendency to think, ‘If I’m not reaching people, if I just shout, that’ll convey the seriousness of my passion and the clarity of my convictions,’” she explains. Among the early shouting populists were former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who rose to power on fiery speeches denouncing the banking houses of Morgan and Rockefeller, and William Jennings Bryan, who, says Trasciatti, was “really able to channel frustration and righteous indignation to his audience.”

In the modern era, plenty of would-be populists have tried speaking more stridently, with mixed success. Take Al Gore, who was ridiculed during his 2000 presidential bid for his robotic tone. In 2004, freed from the constraints of running for office and fired up about the Abu Ghraib scandal, he let loose a barnstormer at New York University. Gore called for the resignation of six top administration officials in an indignant crescendo-delighting many liberals with his display of outrage. In 2008, Hillary Clinton attempted a similar tactic, recasting herself somewhat successfully as a feisty underdog via a series of full-throated assaults on special interests. “You know, sometimes I hear people saying on TV or I read in the papers, ‘Look, she gets so intense, she gets all upset.’ Well, you’re right, I am upset!” she told Cincinnati voters in her newly combative manner.

This approach can backfire, though. During the 2004 primary race, when populist anger on the left was running high, Howard Dean yelled his way to the front of the Democratic field. But, on the night of his disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Dean shouted over the noise of the crowd until he got red in the face. Unfortunately for him, the TV microphones isolated the sound of his screeching. The so-called “Dean Scream” was shown 633 times by cable and broadcast news networks in the following four days and is widely believed to have sunk his candidacy.

There’s one more possible explanation for why Pawlenty was yelling: He could just be nervous. His shouting might be connected to a theory called the “sonorous envelope,” says Goodale. “The idea is that we surround ourselves with sound, particularly when we’re threatened, and the best way to do it is with our own voices—it’s a very comforting sound and it gives us confidence,” he explains. “The bigger the stage, the more frightening the moment, and in Pawlenty’s case he’s moved from Minnesota to a national stage and become a political celebrity.”

Whether Pawlenty’s new voice will help or hurt his candidacy probably depends on how it is treated by campaign reporters. “I think often the press decides to what extent they want to overlook or feature the merely performative aspects of a candidate,” says Robert Hariman, chair of the communication studies department at Northwestern University. “If someone’s a good story, they’ll overlook it. If he offends them or bores them, they’re likely to pull the curtain back and reveal the machinery.” As much as Pawlenty might want to be president, ultimately he may find that there’s no point in shouting about it.

Jesse Zwick is a writer living in Washington, D.C. This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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