Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Words and Power

**I want to preface this post by saying this is not a political blog, so let's all behave ourselves**

As you may know from the fact that I am the agent for THE ALMANAC OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION, SCANDALS & DIRTY POLITICS, I am a serious political junkie. I love following elections, listening to speeches, following political blogs, listening to the media describe the horse race... I really get into it.

I also think this time of year is an extremely interesting time to be a "words" person, because during an election words take on a power in our nation like perhaps no other time -- when being a great writer, or listening to the right writer, and being able to enunciate a vision (and, especially, a story) can be the difference between being president and being an also ran.

I've been thinking a lot about this, and since you all are fellow "words" people, I'm wondering about your response to the rhetoric of the campaign trail. How about those words? We've been hearing the words "style over substance" a lot, and open questions about how seriously we should take oratory in general.

So You Tell Me: as a "words" person, how do you view this time of year while looking through the lens of words and story? Can you separate the words from the speaker? Do words clarify or obfuscate? Do words express eternal truths or do people hear their own meaning? Does articulation of a vision make for a better leader or does the vision cover, rather than reveal the truth? Do the stories of the campaign have any relation to the stories we read in novels, memoirs, or history?

And please, separate this from your individual political allegiance, I'm most curious about how you view the power of words and story as they intersect with power.


Merry Monteleone said...

Ah, words for to usurp power... the fun way to play.

I think, politically, we get caught up on the charisma and propaganda and forget to look at the substance of the statements. Charisma is essentially voice. Fiction writers pour our voice onto the page and bring flavors to our characters - orators bring that voice out to create their own persona, and that is a rare talent that can't be overlooked - it is essential in leadership.

Bringing it back to words, though, I think most future writers had something in common during their high school years - we were happy with essay questions!!! We were the only ones. Every one else rooted for multiple choice, and we reveled in the long drawn out essay questions... why? Because we knew we could weave our words in a concise enough manner to bullshit around all the stuff we didn't know. You can't do that in multiple choice.

Words can be used honorably or they can be used to hide... figuring out the difference means looking past the words... but they are a heck of a lot of fun to mull over.

Other Lisa said...

Personally I'm very skeptical of rhetoric divorced from action or accomplishments, and I'm sensitive to words that do not match up with actions. I prefer speeches that appeal to logic over emotion - but for me a really good argument becomes emotionally satisfying.

I'll just give an example - I know that Al Gore has a reputation of being a boring speaker. But I thought the series of speeches he made starting in...I'm going to say Sept. 2002 but it might have been early 2003 - the first one was at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco - were brilliant. They were logical, with arguments supported by fact and philosophy, elegantly constructed and rooted in very real passion.

Speeches that depend on pushing emotional hot buttons, either positive or negative, don't work for me. I feel like I'm watching a different channel when I hear other peoples' enthusiastic responses. "The Great Communicator" - I never got that.

The whole "crafting of a narrative" that campaigns and the media indulge in - finding a "story" - this may drive peoples' interest but can really distort the process and the players. You have a politician playing a role that to some extent he/she has crafted for his/her life, that the campaign attempts to shape and that the media accepts, rejects or shapes to suit its own needs for a compelling narrative.

Interestingly, I've been thinking about this too, not just because of the current campaign but because I've been watching the HBO series JOHN ADAMS. I'm kind of surprised by how much I'm enjoying it, even though it's sort of a stuffy, traditional costume drama in some ways. But you really get a sense of how much these men were motivated by ideas and how large a role the power of language played in the revolution.

Other Lisa said...

And, I forgot - where things get problematic is when there is dissonance between the role played by the candidate, the role shaped by the media and peoples' own unmediated responses to the candidate - if they have the chance to have those.

I always look for the conflicts, for the contradictions. That's what gives you your best shot at finding out who these people really are.

Jackie said...

Words are powerful. They can build a person up as well as destroy them. Words can motivate a person or cause them to sit still. I am still young enough to "hang my hat" on what a person states...or gullible. It is the action that is motivated by words that I will hang my hat on. "Actions speak louder than words."

E.B. said...

"All our words from loose using have lost their edge." E.H.

Ah, the political season. I hate it almost as much as Christmas season. Both are filled with lies, pandering, half-truths, and false smiles.

Maybe that's why we vote in November.

Nathan Bransford said...

Wow, I'm fascinated that so far comments have come out so strongly against words. Personally, in all elections I feel like they reveal so much -- that by having to articulate ideas, they reveal truths. Certainly they can be untrue or misleading, but we are skilled readers who can parse out the difference. Stories are how we make sense of the world, not just in politics, but in nearly every facet of life.

Merry Monteleone said...


You asked a bunch of fiction writers whether or not they trust the honesty of a person's words... our aim and goal is to make stuff up for a living...


Nathan Bransford said...


haha, true enough!

E.B. said...


I love words but skillfully parsing out the misleading becomes tedious and tiresome. I guess it is a game for the young.

Erik said...

Before I pontificate, the usual caveats - I know the limits of my experience, but I've been around a lot. For brevity I'll state as facts my own opinions, but I do know they are my own opinions formed by my own experience.

In politics, words are really only a tool. At their best, they define the mythology that is used as a short-hand for who the candidate is. At their worst, they are weapons used to put another candidate off-balance or instruments of manipulation and pandering.

Can they be used for more than that, which is to define a movement that excites and energizes? The short answer is that yes, they can, but the mythologies have to be in place before they are effective. Pundits and wags often forget that this early stage of a campaign is never about issues, but is about building the mythologies. People rally to hear a leader once they have a strong, personal image of that leader - not just for the words.

In that way, politics can be a lot like literature.

Other Lisa said...

What Merry said!

I don't think I'm anti-words - I like words just fine. I just think you have to really be sensitive to disconnects between what is said and what is done.

And I'm all in favor of words that articulate ideas, as opposed to words that are all about pushing peoples' emotional buttons.

If you can do both, if you can articulate ideas that give rise to genuine passion - that's the most powerful use of rhetoric, IMO.

That's why watching all those dudes in wigs giving speeches in "John Adams" has been so much fun, and for me, and unexpectedly powerful.

Jackie said...

I am not against words. Articulation is the key to action and a persons actions can be measured on how well a word (or wordS) are articulated. I will still hang my hat on actions AFTER a Political Election though. When it comes to politics and words, words can be spoken with all earnest but not followed through with (that can apply to any situation beyond politics). Judgement is not mine but what is mine is the choice to follow.

E.B. said...

I guess I can understand the attractiveness of equating literature and political speeches. They both can inspire.

However, for me literature is about characters, and great characters face conflict and experience change.

Politicians, in my opinion, are attention whores incapable of change.
They are all the same. Different color, gender, political party, but at their heart they are all the same.

Jackie said...

wow, the bitterness that is conveyed :)

beth said...

I do not believe that words have played a powerful role in this years campaign for president. Image has been much more important. The image of the war vet got McCain the Repub ticket, and the image of change got Obama where he is. Conversely, the image of a b---- is why Hilary isn't doing as well.

beth said...

At least, the above is my observation...I mean, most of them (especailly Hil and Obama) are SAYING the same's the image they're presenting that makes a difference, not the words in this case.

cb said...

Thank you for this question, Nathan.
I am impressed with the previous comments.

As a writer, I am concerned with story that tells a larger truth. I work with symbols.

But as was evident in the recent outrage over the fake memoir woman, there is a certain disdain we hold for those using their "true" words to tell a smaller truth.

What would a smaller truth be?

When one candidate is posturing and using certain tones and drawing on historical formulas (that they themselves did not create) that trigger the weakness of mass hope,their words are aiming at manipulating positions of power through voters innocence and ignorance.

Another, who couches their strength behind nice-ities, is saying, among other things, that we, the listeners, can't take how strong and smart they really are; we have to have it packaged. It would be too much for us.

In both cases, above, the speakers don't trust me to hear or else they are trusting me to hear only the part they lead with, or they think I am stupid because I have hopes and have been oppressed too long.

And, if you say "I love you" to everyone you ever go out with, no one will ever believe you could love anyone.

In contrast,the quieter speaker risks much, (they might be called boring and we like to be so entertained in this culture)but by taking their stand in their own integrity and conviction, rather in what they can get from us, their quieter words form something, to my ears, of a greater truth. I hear their words differently.

Politics make me want to stick my heart in a book that holds up the world the way I need it to be and weep.

"These truths I hold to be self evident..."

C.J. said...

when a politician says something like: "I will pay down the national debt," I don't interpret the statement as an actual promise to do anything about the debt. It's more like he/she is saying "I recognize that the growing debt is a problem."

i went to a rally earlier this year and i have to say that it was a much more emotional experience for me than i thought it would be (kind of like going to a concert as opposed to listening to the CD). it is off-putting to me when candidates fall into the rabble rousing schtick though - it's a fine line between being passionate and being disingenuous.

Jackie said... Nathan, isn't discussing church and state taboo if a priority is to forge friendships??? :)

ChristineEldin said...

I think if a CEO of a company refered to himself as the 'decider' he would be a laughing stock. So, yes, words do matter.

Further, I think well-written speeches delivered with passion can move thousands of people.

John Arkwright said...

Girl in back seat with guy: "I want to. Tell me that you love me, first."

I am 45, so I have seen a few elections. The oddest thing about verbiage in this election is how many times I hear, "Now the candidate must say the following words in order for people to change their opinions and actions."

Like, "John McCain must now explain to conservatives how he is one of them." McCain has a long history. It is clear that he does not have a core political philosophy (Peggy Noonan said when McCain speaks he substitutes biography for philosophy.) But somehow John McCain will say some magic words to change people's minds and actions?

Another example concerns Obama distancing himself from his pastor, Rev. Wright. If Obama did not know that his pastor had the view that America is evil then Obama is oblivious. Even if Obama was lucky enough to miss some of incindiary sermons, I cannot see a white candidate going to a church that preached the kind of racial division that Wright preached and getting off with the excuse, "I missed those Sundays."

Obama first claimed that he was oblivious. Then he claimed that he made allowances. But Obama's actions show that he was led by a messenger of racial strife. So it is clear that any verbiage now is empty.

Asking Obama and McCain for verbal tributes is like the girl saying, "Tell me that you love me, first."

pjd said...

Political speeches are not like literature. They are like television advertising.

Words in politics today are used more as weapons than as tools of education. "Candidate X said Y! This clearly means he's a bigot/racist/Luddite/ignoramus." Then Candidate X responds with clarification, and suddenly 100% of the election coverage is about whether "is means 'is' or 'is and always was'" instead of about what we're going to do about all these foreclosures, how people are going to pay their kids' and aging parents' medical bills, and how we can get out of Iraq while not abdicating our responsibilities or sacrificing security.

The big news now is about the words spoken by someone who isn't even a candidate because someone else found a way to use those words as a weapon.

As a "words person," I do find this time of year fascinating. But in the same way a doctor finds cancer fascinating, I think.

I fear I've become overly cynical with respect to our political process. Sound bites, twisted meanings, misquotations, spin... most frequently used to confuse, divide, and attack these days rather than to unite and lead.

Adaora A. said...

THE ALMANAC is a good book. I went out and bought when it was - indirectly - a possible prize for the latest contest. Some stuff I've never heard of are in there. It's brilliant. Though I did some digging to discover Kim was a man. I thought he, was a she!

[I had to delete a lot of thinly veiled 'political alleigance' in this post.]

Words are distorted, their added in, their removed and they are embellished, all to paint a picture, and present a package, which is used to attempt to steer people away from the issues. I view this time of year as a time to dig deep and really be informed before you believe what is trying to be sold to you via your television set.

Speaking of politics Nathan, what are your thoughts of the Dalai Lama threatening to step down from leadership if violence continues?

Now that I've said my piece, I've got to watch a recording of THE BATCHELOR: LONDON CALLING...He's here to steal all our women."

Erik said...

> But Obama's actions show that he was led by a messenger of racial strife. So it is clear that any verbiage now is empty.

No, that doesn't follow at all. You are making an assumption that community and politics are the same, rather than two things that have to coexist in the same space along with many other things.

That's the problem with language. People from different experiences in life have to convey complex ideas with mere words. Symbols and metaphor, together as mythology, can make a useful shorthand - but only if both the speaker and the listener understand them the same way.

That's why I've been writing in my blog about the generational differences which are key to this election, because the gap in mythologies has grown wider in some places and narrower in others with the arrival of Gen-X and Millenials as up to 45% of all voters.

That's all I'll say to avoid going into a political and racial discussion.

Jackie said...

For the first time each leading canidate, McCain, Clinton and Obama all have an exstensive history to back their person...I find that quite refreshing and that causes me to consider each canidate. Obama may be younger but if you were to look into his background, you would find he did not take any easy roads to achieve what he has accomplished. They all, in their own lives, have accomplished and endured a lot.

Anonymous said...

It's an advantage to be verablly influential with words, to be sure. However, a lot of people will discount that by saying, "He's a better speaker, but I like her message better." Sort of like an agent coming across a fantastic story idea that isn't written all that well, versus tight writing for a tired old concept. You can dress up crap in fancy clothes, but it still stinks.

Jackie said...

:) but ANON isn't that the defintion of a Politician? Oh, that's right it is the definition of a Lawyer

Jackie said...

isn't one of the canidates a Lawyer??? ha ha, oh that's right, she is the Senator of my state

Adaora A. said...



I won't say too much about my political views and which way I lean. I've quietly made that known on my blog.

I will say though, that the word play used by some candidates in this election is staggering. Some candidates are so stuffed with propagandic jargon that they are bursting that the seams. Written word is a technology. It first came about to put things down that folks in antiquity wanted to preserve. That's amazing. Without it, we wouldn't be doing what we are doing, and I wouldn't dream of my books being published, and having a fabulous agent like Nathan. The problem with technology is that no matter how good the original intent of technology is, there are going to be people around to shape shift them - to suite their own good. Think of any technology that we are reliant on. With the good often comes the ugly.

Sometimes I can seperate the words from the speaker. Sometimes you have to. Think of a time when someone you like, love and or care about said something you disagreed with. Are you still friends with them? I am. Sometimes though, given the election, I can't help but feel a bit bitter and annoyed over the way words are being used in an attempt to swin votes one way or another. I want to hear issues, I don't want to hear about how one candidate is supposedly inexperienced, and what race or gender they are. I want to hear words that speak to the change they want to bring about, to better America. In some cases, all I see is words being used as a dagger to cut into someone in order to build yourself up, to make oneself look better.

That's me saying my opinion and trying to keep my personal backing out of it.

Jenny said...

Distinguishing between what is true and what misleading isn't about parsing. The word "parse" suggests all you need to do this is the text. But that's the whole problem. The text alone doesn't give you what you need to determine the validity of the speech.

Truth usually involves sorting through great messy wads of fact. They need to be analyzed and understood. Often the facts are presented in ways intended to deceive, by people skilled in statistics--a discipline probablyl .0001% of the population understands.

The problem in the age of the sound bite is that the public has lost its respect for complexity that lies behind political decision. It has also lost its respect for intelligence as a quality required for successful leadership.

There is no other way to explain our current political leadership. Or why every agenda that involves facts gets derailed by flat earth demogogues appealing to people who are proud of their lack of education.

Jackie said...

Obama is articulate, I would like to know how much he helps to write his speeches.

Jackie said...

he has a few books published

Jackie said...

toodles all, have a wonderful afternoon :)

Adaora A. said...

@ jackie - He writes a lot of his speeches. The adress of over 40 minutes he just made a day or so ago he wrote himself for example.

This topic is so good. Lovely that no one has become catty either.

The Window Seat said...

"Stick and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me."

A bigger lie was never told to children.

Words of course have the power to do almost anything, change the course of history, right egregious wrongs, mend fences, damage someone for a lifetime.

But we only recognize their true power when they are well-chosen and from the mouth of a true visionary. Typical words, sloppy posturing, hollow promises just sound like background noise.

Jackie said...

now I have to pop back in to throw my two cents in Adora :)
I am ubstaining from passing my judgement down so as not to appear catty...I am trying :)

Other Lisa said...

The text alone doesn't give you what you need to determine the validity of the speech.

Exactly. This is the same problem with depending on manufactured candidate narratives and mythologies.

Although, again...watching this John Adams thing...I can't help but feel that some words, some ideas, transcend the individuals who crafted them and their intentions.

Anonymous said...

I'm a HUGE fan of words among politicians, and I know people will call me naive because of it. But words are a politician's stock in trade, they are what makes a politician successful. Without the ability to sway, convince, inspire, intimidate or cajole, a politician is DOA. And I also respect modern politicians' need to craft a simple narrative that resonates with the most people. Let's face it, we live in a mass culture, and often, the simplest truths are those that can be spoken in a single sentence.

Remember Reagan saying, "Tear down this wall!" Or Kennedy's exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Political speech in an art form, and no matter what anybody's opinions on the current president are, early in his administration, he and his handlers had mastered a certain kind of politico speak that made them very effective (from their POV). Because, ultimately, politics is based on public goodwill, and public goodwill is based on perception, and perceptions are created by words.


Jackie said...

@ Adora, I suspected with his educational background, he writes his own speeches. Life got the better of me and I missed his speech (can I throw a plug in here Nathan?), the speech can be viewed on the Internet

Jackie said...


r.c. said...

I have to admit, I'm not much of a political junkie, but I sure am enjoying the intrigue of this year's democratic primary. It has conflict and high stakes and dirty tricks and an outcome that, at this point, is still unknown. Good stuff.

I tend to avoid political speeches for one main reason - they seem to be 99.9% pandering. The politicians just tell their audience what they want to hear - whether it's "G.W.B. is the cause of all problems" or "The War is a success!" or "Our Health Care System sucks."

Tell me something new. Have an insight I hadn't heard before. Make me think. Make me care enough to sacrifice something.

I may miss it though, because I've stopped listening.


Words ARE power. Some people have the gift of oration. All of them are not good people. Hitler is an example of a gifted orator from “the dark side.”

In my lifetime, I've seen that some of our leaders have had the gift while others have not. The "haves" include JFK, Reagan, and Clinton. Our current leader is obviously not in their company. Either that or his particular flavor of oratory was a facade of genius "strategery."

In my estimation, two of this cycle's players have proven themselves to be "haves." One is Obama, and the other is Huckabee. For the latter, it wasn't enough. Given recent developments, it appears that the former will need every word skill he possesses to wash his hands of another skilled orator.

He tried a Teflon assembly of words over the weekend, and it did not work. The speech he delivered yesterday was in many respects one of the most masterful I've ever seen. I believe it came up short in the end. The basis of my belief is that, as brilliant as it was, the speech tasted better to the majority of 12% of the population than it did to the majority of 88% of the population.

Throughout most of the campaign, Obama's strength has been his appeal among that 88%. The viability that appeal provided is what shifted almost all of the 12% to his camp. That shift is what has differentiated him from every other African-American presidential candidate we've ever had.

In baseball, you're out after three strikes. I think it is imperative for Obama to use his third whack at his current difficulties to knock it out of the park.

Finally, I just have to mention the "just words" plagiarism blow up we had a few weeks ago. I was surprised that it faded so quickly, especially since a similar circumstance knocked Joe Biden out of the 1988 race. As TV's wave of clips in the wake of Obama's "just words" delivery showed us, they all do it now. Apparently the spoken word is not as proprietary as the written.

Adaora A. said...

@Jackie - Absolutely. The video is on my blog's youtube channel.

There are many cool 'book trailers' floating around youtube as well. THE BOOK OF EVE has a great trailer online.

Precie said...

LOL at what Merry said about asking fiction writers this!!!

I don't think it's a matter of semantics when I say that words aren't necessarily the same as "rhetoric." Yes, words have power. But words can be powerfully woven together to influence people negatively (Hitler) as well as positively (MLK). So I find it hard to parse this question.

Yes, words/stories in a campaign year can bring truths out into the open, especially about how America has evolved since its founding.

But what seems to be most evident to me during election years is how words can be used as weapons, as control tactics, as if we're sheep being herded hither and yon.

Wow, that sounds more cynical and angry than I am...or at least than I normally am.

Mary Paddock said...

I think words and the mastery of them have a great deal to do with the success or failure of a candidate both on the election circuit and as government officials. Those who deliver them well, inspire and draw people into their wake. Charisma well used is a consciousness of this fact.

As a writer it's my nature to reduce what I want to say in any particular piece of fiction to the answering the scene question I've created and then cut everything that doesn't pull toward my goal. So I am extremely conscious of when candidates substitute pretty rhetoric for answers. I hate it when a candidate in a debate holds forth without giving a direct reply and I am quick to distrust them.

Dave F. said...

I have no clue as to the backgrounds of anyone here. I will tell you that I almost never hear good words out of politicians. I hear lots of simple catch phrases laced with weasel words. I almost never hear well-reasoned discussion. And as for inspiring, most of the politicians I've heard couldn't inspire the rain to fall or the sun to rise (and believe me, those things happen regularly without our intervention.)

Once upon a time when I was a kid, I heard hope. I heard forward looking speech. the voice of hope. the voice that calls you to be better than you are.
The first time I ever heard it was President John Kennedy. I heard that again when Martin Luther King gave the speech on the Washington Mall. I didn't hear it again from anyone in the world until Pope John Paul said "Be Not Afraid."

And I heard it again in Iowa when I wasn't expecting to hear it. That was Barrack Obama's first win.

Most politicians (especially the current crop in the White House) are nothing but weasel words. They try to craft a gravitas that they eludes them. They lie outright and call it truth. It's political-speak, double-talk or just plain lies.

From his first words in office, George Bush wanted war with someone so he could make his name in history. Read his inaugural, the belligerence is there for all to see. It's his words, remember.

Look to carelessness with words - John McCain having to be correct about Shia and Sunni Islam. I like McCain, He's a hero. But he's careless with words and ideas.

Dave F. said...

I wanted to add something about Reverend Wright and Barrack Obama. I won't repeat the statements.

Do I know Rev Wright? No. Do I understand him?

My 85 year old Mother tells "n" jokes to her african-american friends. She hides from young black men in malls. However, her best neighbor, a black woman, her daughter and the grandson - are treated as family. And they trade jokes that make me blush. They run down people (the trash) in terms that would offend.

I have a relative married to a man half-black, half Indian (India). I live her child. She's an absolute joy (At 7 going on 35, yanno! She's growing like all little girls).

Rev Wright used a few bad words. I can understand his point and I do not have to return the sentiments. In fact, I might remind that that he should turn the other cheek. I wouldn't walk away and leave him with his words.

Now that's all for words.

Aden said...

The thoroughbred distrust--of the spoken word, of politicians and words in general--displayed at this time of year leads me to wonder about the depth and ferocity of disenfranchisement and alienation in our popular culture. They're tropes repeated so often I can't help but wonder if they've become self-fulfilling prophecies. The image of the politician with a golden, forked tongue is compelling but I don't think it is as really true as the culture takes for granted.

(Clarifying a bit, I mean that these images appear out of frustration with government and political corruption, but ultimately serve to reinforce and prepares us to expect such corruption and frustration.)

The creation of a narrative out of some loose assemblage of sounds and scribbled symbols isn't some vastly deceptive conspiracy to make some greedy nincompoop suddenly electable; it's just the most closely scrutinized, most public example of the processes that everyone performs constantly. Words are always already like this, im/potent, we just aren't looking so hard in the middle of the everyday.

We lay down so much ink about it because language is such a powerful tool, it sculpts and socializes us, and yet these formative processes that create who we are are both unconscious (less than the human performing/being performed upon) and simultaneously supraconscious (emerging from the structures and narratives society itself builds and maintains from the disparate threads of all its citizens). Language and the infrastructure of socialization it supports are incredibly powerful and yet invisible until some event like the elections that allows us to examine--if darkly--the factors that created our selves. It's fascinating and frightening and only arrives rarely, so we study it intensely.

As an aside, there is something the multiple-choice question allows you to perform that the essay refuses: The guess. If I know absolutely nothing about a subject, there's no chance in hell I want an essay question. A 20% chance of hitting on the right answer by happy accident, or a certainty of putting my ignorance on display? I'll take chance every time.

Tammie said...

The words do mean a lot. The better the candidate can communicate to the masses the better. BUT the words need to have substance and reason - just like in a work of fiction - if your characters "speak" words that are faulty you the reader will lose interest or not be moved or they get edited out.

For politics, the problem comes when the candidate and the speech writers and advisors get caught up in spin and don't match up - "I wasn't in the church to hear the Pastor" versus a few days later in a major speech "Was I ever in the church during these sermons - yes" people make mistakes, can be forgetful, or a liar or whatever and some can overlook it - but it weakens the message.

After a time it wont matter how great a speech maker you are - don't just tell me what you think I want to hear - tell me where you're gonna take me and how we are gonna get there.

So back to your question Words and Power - the words do have power, but you must have substance to back them up otherwise they are meaningless.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tammie - Words without substance, forget it. Means nothing. Give me the real deal - even if I disagree, so I can make up my mind. Get rid of all speechwriters & make this all Q & A with the people. Change? To what? .... spell it out!!! Vision? What's the vision? Got some ideas for more giveaway programs (read - vote purchases)? Howya gonna fund it? Is it, once again, coming out of the pockets of those of us that are (gasp) affluent? (I know that's a crime these days - gotta be downtrodden). Frankly, the 3choices aren't great, but at least the one that I lean toward answers the questions without slogans.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steph Leite said...

Ah here's a comment section discussion I won't be taking part in. I don't have very many opinions regarding the upcoming election. :)

Katie said...

I haven't read all of these comments (yet). That said, I acknowledge that words have power, but I DON'T like the way the seem to determine elections! I'll admit that it does take a certain amount of oratory skill to lead a country and persuade Congress to your way of thinking, etc. However, I believe that there's a lot of other skills, experience, etc. that are every bit as important. Yet, during campaign time, it's nearly impossible to distinguish any of that from the words of the politicians and media that deliver the information! That's what frustrates me... trying to discover the truth through the filter of what those who are delivering it want you to think.

And, of course, it's equally frustrating that millions of Americans don't seem to realize that just because a politician says he/she will accomplish something, doesn't necessarily mean that he/she will be able to do it, no matter how sincere his/her intentions are.

No, I can't stand this time of year and hearing campaign speeches. In fact, I get all of my news online just so I can avoid listening to either them OR the media! I like words for stories, but when it comes to real life, give me facts!

susan d said...

Anon 2:01
Disagree that you "gotta be downtrodden" or that the wealthy are resented by most people - as a matter of fact, I train the wealthy elite every day and love most of them - but I do believe that someone in higher places has got to do something about the health care system and the housing industry crash and FAST to keep middle class people (yes, that would be me) from ending up in a bad way...

Otherwise, America will end up like many Third-World countries where there are two classes - rich and poor.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, In the HBO miniseries on John Adams that started Sunday, there was this terrfic "writerly" scene where Thomas Jefferson, having been chosen to write our country's founding documents, was subject to "editorial notes" from John Adams and Ben Franklin, who like any good editor, suggested changes to the text. The actor playing Jefferson sat there, quietly taking in their comments, his subtle facial expressions showed half annoyance that they did not find his MS perfect (as he thought it was), but also his face showed that he believed their suggestions improved his MS.

Words alone matter. Words alone have power. The pen is mightier than the sword! Same then. Same now.

Side note: I am still not used to Merry's new avatar.

Other Lisa said...

Oooh, someone else watching JOHN ADAMS.

I love the portrayal of Jefferson.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathn: Speaking of the election,I saw an article today that anyone who has a book coming out in the fall had better be prepared for getting little or no attention/publicity because it'll be all about political books, politicians promoting themselves on the morning shows (as opposed to novelists).... quite the bleak forecast for fall books.

You also saw this during 9/11 - whatever books that were released around that time fell through the cracks and wallowed in obscurity.

I've heard of quite a few books that failed because of bad timing, not merit. Sad.

Nathan Bransford said...


I seem to recall from the last election that there was some evidence that non-political books were being lost in the shuffle with everyone so focused on the election, and yes, the media does tend to focus more on political books. But there's also the school of thought that with more people buying books it raises all ships. I guess we'll see.

LindaBudz said...

Funny you should bring this up. I got a call this evening from a survey company. Based on their line of questioning, I realized they were polling people on behalf of the tobacco industry, which is currently fighting a movement in Congress to place them under the purview of the FDA.

Much as I dislike the tobacco industry, I couldn't help but tailor my answers in such a way so as to try to help them figure out what their best message is (imo) if they want to fight this potential added regulation (i.e., since the FDA has slipped up on some major food and prescription drug issues lately, why should they get more of our tax dollars to regulate an already heavily regulated product rather than be asked to concentrate more on, um, food and drugs).

Anyway, it's the PR pro in me. I just live for that stuff.

Up with words!

Aimless Writer said...

I do ad work for a certain political party in a small NJ town. Words are my weapons!

Tom Burchfield said...

I find the relationship between politics and language a stressful one, a relationship where values like truth and fact mostly suffer. As has been said, words are a tool. A hammer can be used to both build a house and beat someone's brains out. Words are a necessary tool for human communication and surely can inspire us to great things. But way too often they are used to con, manipulate and bully (see Iraq, just for one). In the context of politics and the human quest for power, words should always be taken with a grain of salt . . . maybe even with a whole shaker full of it.

Even at its best, political rhetoric, because it has to reach so many people with different agendas, mostly winds up sounding hollow, cliched and denuded of meaning. There's an old show business saying: The bigger your audience, the less you can say.

So, while I'm certainly a concerned and attentive citizen, when it comes to speeches and punditry, I keep my salt shaker ready and loaded in my holster. The inherent messiness of democracy politics all but entangles even the most conscientious politician in the web of hypocrisy and flipfloppery. It's what politicians have done--and haven't--and where they've succeeded--and failed--that informs my decisions on election day.

austexgrl said...

Words...for politicians are usually written by speech writers..professional speech writers that are paid to write what a specific group of people want to hear.So, are the speech writers fiction writers? And, here is a thought, maybe we should vote for the speech writers instead of the politicians.

Sam Hranac said...

Something that is important to me in politics is that the speaker be the person that came up with the words. I hate the very idea of speech writers for professional politicians. An editor, okay. A crit group, maybe. But the person running for office should be the person setting the ideas down and lining them up.

Did Lincoln get handed the Gettysburg Address as he stepped off the train, or did he sweat and scribble over it himself?

If a person cannot contrive to express their own views, then that person should not lead others.

Moose said...

I think image is more important than words.

The Hillary (apple) 1984 youtube video gave a big boost to Obama, imo.

In earlier campaigns:

Lloyd Bentsen's quip (to Dan Quayle) was amusing, but had no apparent effect at the polls.

Sen. Mondale's "Where's the beef" quip to Gary Hart may have damaged Hart, but it didn't do much for Mondale.

And of course the classic political commercial is LBJ's showing a little girl picking flowers, then getting nuked. Imagery working again.

My take on the present campaign is that the more Obama talks about race (or other issues) the more he takes himself off the pedestal and puts himself under the microscope.

Vote for Moose! A turducken in every pot and an electric car in every garage!

Anonymous said...

Words can tell stories and stories can remind us of what matters to us in our lives. So when Obama in his big speech yesterday told a story about his grandmother being afraid of black men on the street, and another story about a white campaign worker who got an elderly black man to come out to campaign, and still other stories that were meant to illuminate the racial divide and how we might overcome it, then, yes, words are powerful, and maybe even power.

Tammie said...

Hmmm I find the talk of images being more powerful interesting. I consider myself a news junkie as well and I'd rather take in the words, and the tone they are spoken in into consideration than an image that can be set up or misrepresented. The Hillary Apple thing didn't do a thing for me but thats just me.

And I'd rather they all be under the microscope BEFORE putting them up on any kind of pedestal.

Its the words. They can move you forward, tell it like it is or come back to haunt you and that all plays into letting people know what sort of person you are. Is politics a game - sure, but eventually your true colors come bleeding through.

susan d said...

austexgrl 4:36
I'm willing to cast my vote for a speech writer. Especially one with a concrete plan to remediate the health care system. Or one with an engaging blog...

GDub said...

Never misunderestimate the power of words.

crapshooter said...

Think of him what you will, but Rush Limbaugh's "Words Mean Things" speech is dead on.

Another view:

The last politician to use words meaningfully was Everette Dirksen.
JFK may have been a distant second. Ronald Reagan remains first for the best delivery of words.

Anonymous said...

I majored in journalism in college and that decision mostly came from a very idealistic view of what words could do. I knew writing in that vein was all about finding truth but I also liked to think good journalism reminded people why they should care in the first place. For that reason, I guess I'm still a little idealistic when it comes to political candidates and what they say. Lately I've been bombarded with criticism from a friend because the person I'll probably end up voting for is an eloquent speaker. "Just words" he keeps saying. I agree with him in that words have to be accompanied by action. But I also don't see what's wrong with someone who understand people WANT to get caught up in a great story all their own. I know lots of morons have given inspiring speeches, but I really feel like this is different. It's so amazing to see how words charge through the atmosphere and change things. Or how a sentence can infuriate one person and inspire someone else to do something amazing. I'm rambling now.

But my point is, I get excited when leaders slice through the standard political rhetoric I expect and offer me something more genuine and tangible. I like it when they don't just reiterate problems but remind me why I should care. I think maybe some leaders understand the weight of their words and if those words they choose produce more compassion, responsibility, and hope, I'm all for it. And I'm likely to respond. I think it was Jimmy Eat World who said "Believe your words can mean something'? I think that is particularly true in this election. I hope whoever succeeds carries through.

DVshooter said...

I think these grandious speaches, full of powerful prose, buzz words and phrases of the current economic and political world, overwrought with inspiration and revolutionary the problem with candidates who fail.

Primarily because it's the same stuff we hear every election.

As much as most people hate Bush these days, think back to what Kerry had to offer? He had these huge, sweeping speeches about "injecting new ideas" and "changing the way Washington works" and "taking back the country".

That all sounds great, but on paper, so does communism. The big problem I think he had when people went to the polls (other than Bush's short lived popularity) was a lack of rubber meeting pavement.

I'm ready for a change in D.C. like most people, but I'm starting to see a lot of that with the current batch of candidates.

My 0.02$

Casey said...

You asked, Nathan, if we can separate the words from the speaker. To me, it seems infinitely more difficult to marry the two in the case of public figures. Perhaps I am cynical or jaded by the many examples I have seen of people who fail to live up to their words, but I don't trust politicians. I too love politics (have a B.A. in Political Science), yet I cannot bring myself to rest my faith on the shoulders of a person who employs a team of writers to articulate a personal opinion.

The words themselves can be powerful, but in this case, I think the medium kills the message.

Adaora A. said...

Hoover the problem with the last election was one thing and one thing only: RALPH NADER.

Just wanted to let that out.

The wordplay in this election from particular ends, makes it difficult for me to - as Nathan asked - seperate the words from the person. All I see is words being flung around in order to achieve political gain. It's silly season, and it draws people's attention away from the issues which matter. It's a very selfish and dirty way to go about things.

Speaking of the Almanac: Nathan you should have watched Jeopardy tonight! I almost squealed when a whole vertical board was devoted to...THE ALMANAC. I got every single one correct. Why? Because you lure your blog readers into buying everthing you suggest. First I bought ON CHESIL BEACH, and now I've got THE ALMANAC. I love answering Alec Trebeck correctly though. It felt good to sweep three boards - one was literature in general and obviously, that was a beeze, another was The Beatles, again a breeze - and grin like a fool.

meg said...

I'm cheap now. I worked in politics and like you, got the thrill of the words and the whole game of it. So much of what I hear annoys me and of course anyone I wanted to vote for was knocked out long ago. But yesterday when Obama addressed race in America? And I'd been pissed at him for months for being such a wimp regarding issues dear to my heart? I rolled over. I was sitting right here and said fuck yeah. He gets it. And now, that is probably that.

John said...

Jeez, Nathan -- you really need to move to the East Coast so those of us over here can catch up on these conversations while they're happening!

When I was teaching high-school English, I used to do a mini-unit each year on semantics. The central point I hoped they'd take away from that unit could be found in a strange imaginary scrap of dialogue I provided at the outset:

Person A: Duck!
Person B: Why?
Person A: Because I'm about to hit you over the head with the phrase "baseball bat"!

I asked them to imagine themselves in Person B's shoes. Would they duck?

Political language does this all the time -- substituting words for the things they stand for, and relying on our instinct to duck (or embrace) on cue. I'm always skeptical of claims to be persuaded only by logic and reason because they seem to disregard what is (to me, anyhow) obvious: the path between the outside world and the language centers of our brain goes (in both directions) through the viscera.

I do love words and their effects, as I guess I must if I want to be a writer. But damn, they are some slippery things to try to hold onto...

Kathryn Harris said...

All I have to say Nathan is that if you ever want to divorce yourself from the love of elections, work in the news media for 10 years. Even though I only work for a mid-size daily newspaper, I want to jab my eardrums with icepicks by the time November rolls around because I'm so tired of listening to the words.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I guess I always try to pay attention to the meaning of what the person is trying to say. For instance, President Clinton is credited with being a marvelous, engaging speaker. I was lukewarm toward him as president and never quite knew why, but then I saw him speak on David Letterman a few years ago. He opened up and spoke his mind the way you wish they would/could when they're actually president, and I came away thinking what an intelligent, articulate man he is.

I guess at the end of the day, the words don't matter much unless you look back and take some meaning from them. Too many politicians (even the current favorites) leave me empty at the end of the day.

"Stick and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me."

The real meaning of that phrase, I believe, is that words can only hurt you if you let them. Unfortunately, most people do.

Maripat said... writers we are expected to create characters that need to be loveable-or at least fascinating-and create a world that’s believable.

Remember on The Wire, Bunk said something like, “The bigger the lie the more they believe it...”

I might be misquoting it but the idea behind it stayed with me. Words are powerful and this is especially seen during the election season. Any election. I guess that’s why I’m more interested in what folks do besides spew a lot of pretty words.

Isak said...

I don't really know if there's any one way to look at these deep questions, but here's my take on it:

The media is a strange animal. As someone who has more of a background in television than the written word, I found myself frustrated and disgusted with the way in which stories and ideas were presented to the public, not just in the United States, but all over the world. Taking a step back from that, I realized that radio and film were just different ways of projecting a message and except in rare cases (such as the style of Stanley Kubrick) there was little room for interpretation. Ultimately, I think, this is why I turned to writing, because its black and white and despite the best attempts to present a message one way or the other, there is more room for interpretation by the audience. We really don't tend to go back and research things we see on television or hear on the radio or see in films, but in a book, in a magazine, it seems logical to check another written source to verify information, and most standard styles require sources for citation. With the Internet, its even easier to research and verify--and also, to create false messages and information.

Words matter because its how we transmit our collective history and consciousness. Not all stories are relevant now, but they may be in the future. Before all of these new forms of media, there was simply the written and spoken word, and they were used to inform, to share, to educate, and (whether or not anyone wants to admit it) to control people.

It's the responsibility of not only the speaker or writer to effectively communicate, but also the responsibility of the audience to interpret. (And I think the modern age has diminished that with some arrogant sense that we know everything because we're SOOO very advanced.) The whole process of communication makes the receiver and the speaker/writer go hand in hand. We should take speakers very seriously. What people say does matter, if we agree with it or not. They are communicating something about their perspective on our world, and if that perspective is being skewed, there's much more to the message they are projecting that the recievers need to properly interpret. Style and substance then become equally important, and our human ability to reason and analyze has to come out to play.

Really, all media should be an huge democratic forum, its the laziness of the audiences to simply accept the messages being lobbed and fired at them that diffuses and dilutes our societies and governments, and in some cases, empowers them beyond the publics' ability to resist them.

Yeah, so, that really wasn't a great answer, but its how I see it...

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hey, thanks for the blog, it's really helping me with cooking up a new novel!

Wanda B.

Lynne said...

Words, words, words. The thing I enjoy the most about this election is the phone calls. We have a 'do not call number' which is unlisted. The fine for reaching a 'do not call' number is $5,000 for the first offense. So far, I've received a tape-recorded message from one senator, his wife, and a *real*! person schilling for money. They all tell me the other side is bad. I say *they* are breaking the law. Gollee, Sarge!

Anonymous said...

Campaigns these days don't care about words, per se; they care about a sound bite, something pithy enough to be repeated and meaningless enough not to bother the base-vote for that candidate.

This campaign is interesting, because the one candidate really discussing the issues came second a few times, but got no momentum. On the other hand, the candidate making real speeches got a lot of traction. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

a politician in my country--not US-- made a very bad choice of words a few years ago when instead of saying "cunning stunts" he got the words mixed up and said, "stunning ....ahem..." The media had a field day with that one.

Norma Desmond said...

I love words. But words have to mean something. Novels that have words that can be open to a number of different interpretations can be genius and beautiful. I love novels that can first be read one way, and then, after you reach the end, you go back and realize that you were reading a completely different novel than the one you thought. You then have a totally different experience reading a very different novel the second time.

I don't, however, like having this experience with politicians. Politicians can move you with words, but more often, they affect the world with their actions. Often their actions don't comport with their words. Their words say one thing but their policies and actions have a totally different effect. (I think of phrases like "The Civil Rights Act" used to describe propositions ENDING affirmative action.)

So. I like my politicians to speak with beautiful words, but it's more important to me that the words be specific and demonstrative of concrete ideas that I agree with. And that are not vague enough to carry a totally different meaning later on. Ideally the words will also be backed up by a record of action in accordance with the words that I also agree with.

Ideally, charisma and pretty words would exist simultaneously with concrete and specific substance and actions that I agree with philosophically. But when I have to choose, I choose the latter.

Related Posts with Thumbnails