Sunday, November 4, 2012

Politics Week: Presidential Linguistics, Part 1

In honor of the upcoming U.S. elections, we thought we'd look at U.S. presidents and their linguistic trademarks over the next few days. Here's part one, beginning with the man who started the idea of a weekly presidential address to the public.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR couldn't walk very well, but what he lacked in mobility due to polio he made up for with his ability to lead a country and soothe the nation with his fireplace chats on the radio during the war. He was so beloved that he was elected to a record four terms, which eventually inspired Congress to pass the Twenty-second Amendment, which states that a person can only be elected twice. Every president since Roosevelt has continued the weekly address, though now they can be found on YouTube as well as the radio...

Harry S. Truman

The last president without a university degree, Truman had horrible eyesight...he even memorized an eye chart in order to get himself into the military! When he got home from the war, he'd proven himself a leader and became involved in politics. He was eventually chosen as FDR's final vice president despite not having campaigned for the position. Soon after, FDR died and Truman became president. Known for his "down-home" style of speaking (he often threw away his speeches), he reportedly said "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me" to reporters after being sworn in as president. It probably wasn't quite what people wanted to hear that day... it doesn't really instill confidence, does it?

This sign remained on the president's desk in the
Oval Office for decades after Truman left office.

Truman's lasting linguistic mark on the presidency, however, was the phrase "The buck stops here." It referred to the idea that the president has to make important decisions and accept responsibility for them as well. It was he who authorized the atomic bombing of Japan, and throughout his life he readily accepted responsibility for that controversial decision. Politicians don't often do that anymore.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

In 1950, Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which made him the highest ranking military officer. He was uninterested in becoming president, but people were tired of Truman and the Korean War. A movement called "I Like Ike" began, and Eisenhower soon became the first citizen drafted to become president by the American people. After winning the New Hampshire primary (despite not giving permission to have his name on the ballot), he accepted his candidacy. He went on to win by a landslide. 

They really did like Ike. He won with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson's 89.
(In the popular vote, that breaks down to 55.2% over 44.3%...
but we won't get into the horrors of American election rules.)

John F. Kennedy

JFK had quite the Boston accent. The Boston accent is noted for its non-rhoticity (not using the phoneme /r/) as well as its distinct vowels and their occasional nasality. Mayor Joe Quimby from The Simpsons has a voice reminiscent of JFK's, though the character is more closely based on his brother, Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected, and his youth and charisma charmed the public. He also knew how to give an inspiring speech... in his inaugural address to the country, he uttered the famous line "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He was renowned for his optimism, and people couldn't help but believe him and help make his goals come true. He wanted the U.S. to be the first country to have a man on the moon by the end of the '60s, and sure enough, it happened in 1969, years after his assassination.

JFK asked for a man on the moon... instead he got three!

Tomorrow we'll continue with Part 2, featuring recent presidents such as "Bubba" and "Dubya".