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Presidential Voices
From George Washington to George W.  Bush

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Do You Speak Presidential?

Language is a powerful political tool.
Anna Marie Trester
explains how, in America, presidential speech continues to reflect broader changes in our way of speaking.

Ask most Americans what someone from Washington, D.C. sounds like, and they’ll probably look at you blankly. American English as spoken in Washington, D.C. doesn’t seem to be among the language’s most recognizable or highly valued forms. This may have something to do with the city. It is not one of the nation’s biggest and it is transitory; most inhabitants are not from D.C. and many do not stay long-term.  When people move to D.C., they bring the speech of the communities in which they were raised, resulting in a mix of many norms.

Ironically, the  American English that most Americans say is most acceptable may be entirely imaginary. Standard American is believed by Midwesterners and non-Midwesterners alike to have originated somewhere in the Midwest. Often these same people will point to broadcasting as playing an important role in the preference, but then what exactly is Broadcast English, and how does it relate to Standard American?

President Ronald Reagan is credited as speaking this variety, but he started as a professional actor. Reagan was a linguistic anomaly because his dramatic training made it difficult to tell where he was from based on how he spoke. Although he grew up in Illinois and moved to California, he was likely trained to have no appreciable regionalisms in his speech. Like many newscasters, Reagan used a form of speech that just sounds neutral.

However, most Americans communicate information about where they come from every time they open their mouths. One of the most easily identifiable features is whether you pronounce the [r] sound. Let’s listen to three very different presidents.

R-Lessness: JFK, Carter and FDR

franklin d. roosevelt

videoJohn F. Kennedy

Kennedy: people “everywheah”, in spite of occasional disappointments, look to us--not to “ouah” wealth or “powah”, but to the splendor of our ideals. For “ouah” Nation is commissioned by history to be “eithah” an “observah” of freedom's “failuah” or the cause of its success.

videoJimmy Carter

Carter: 2:02:15 – but I’ll always “remembah” that the best weapons “ah” the ones that “ah”nevah” fired in combat, and the best soldier is one who “nevah” has to lay his life down on the field of battle. Strength is imperative “foah” peace, but the two must go hand in hand.

Both Kennedy and Carter sometimes do not produce the [r] sound, particularly at the end of words. Listen carefully when Carter says remember and soldier and when Kennedy says everywhere or splendor.

Both used a speech pattern known as Rless, in which speakers delete the [r] sound in certain contexts. This feature is typical in parts of New England (especially Boston), New York, New Jersey and in parts of the South. A feature may be interpreted differently depending upon a person’s personal geography. Rless speech makes Kennedy sound more like an elite “Boston Brahman” but makes Carter sound like a Southerner.

Now listen to New Yorker Franklin Roosevelt in this “fireside chat.” As a result of the loss of the [r] sound in the word rubber, he sounds almost British. In the New York of his day, it sounded prestigious to drop [r]s at the ends of words such as water, sugar, ever….The social significance of not pronouncing [r]s has changed several times in U.S. history.

Attitudes toward personal and presidential speech patterns have changed over the past 40 years.  The English spoken by Texan video Lyndon B. Johnson was openly despised yet decades later, video Bill Clinton and videoGeorge W. Bush are credited with sounding “down to earth.” Let’s listen to more examples of presidents through the years.

FDR’s Fireside Chats

family listening to the radio, 1940s

Franklin Delano Roosevelt used language as a powerful political tool, changing the way executive office holders speak to the nation. As president during the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt insisted on using plain direct speech, rather than the flourishing rhetoric of the presidents who had preceded him.

audioListen to excerpts of FDR in Real Audio

Roosevelt was the first president to use the mass media to regularly connect with the nation, in his famous “fireside chats.” Roosevelt’s evening radio addresses helped worried citizens stay informed on and involved with all matters of state. FDR intentionally used “direct, simple, calm, language” to explain problems and his plans to solve them. He sensed that he would be most effective in communicating with the public if he “joined” citizens in their living rooms and kitchens for relaxed conversation. No president had ever made the effort to address his citizenry so directly and informally.

In changing how a president addressed the nation, and by educating and comforting the public with his speeches, FDR was able to bring about some of the most revolutionary changes in American and world history. These included the New Deal and the United Nations. Roosevelt's fireside chats also helped him convince Americans, in the years before Pearl Harbor, that they could not remain isolated.

Brandenberg Gate speech, June 12, 1987

Decades later, Ronald Reagan took Roosevelt’s use of mass media to a new level, making the presidency seem even more accessible. Although not the first president to use television, Reagan is remembered as a master of the medium who delivered his vision dramatically, distilling it to its essential elements. Listen to this powerful message delivered at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin:

videoRonald Reagan

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev -- Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Bill Clinton’s Style Shiftin’

president clinton shaking hands

Bill Clinton is known as a relaxed, disarming public speaker. It has been noted that from one speech to another he can sound almost like a different person.  And in fact, sociolinguists have found that speakers change their speaking style depending upon circumstances. Listen to the following speech excerpts, and see what differences in President Clinton’s speaking style you notice:

videoBill Clinton

Ma fellow citizens:

Today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal.

This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But, by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring.

videoBill Clinton

“You have to “disa:d” “wheder” we’re “gonna” build a bridge to the future “ar” try to build a bridge to the “payst.” You have to “disa:d” whether to tell the American people they have to get into that future on their own or whether that bridge is “gonna” be big enough and wide enough for all of us to walk across together. You have to “disa:d”wheder” we’re “gonna” say to “folks” ‘you’re on your own’ or “wheder” we’re “gonna” say ‘yes it does “tayke” a village to raise our children and build our future’. Four years ago “a” came to Daytona beach amid a “tam” of ‘ha” unemployment, rising frustration and increasing division.”

The first excerpt sounds a lot more formal than the second; Clinton also sounds less “Southern” in the inaugural address than in the campaign speech in the South. One of the contributing factors is the degree to which he produces the sound /ay/ as in “tired” as “tared” — or produces “my” as “ma.” Changing the /ay/ sound to /a/ is commonly associated with traditional Southern American Speech, and partly why Clinton sounds more Southern at times. A Southerner may produce more of the “Southern” sounding variants when in a less formal situation, talking to other Southerners, or if the topic calls for less formality.

We all change the way that we speak depending on where we are, to whom we are talking and what we are talking about. This variation is style shifting. If we are hanging out with our friends we are much more likely to say thinkin’,walkin’ or talkin’ than if we are at a job interview, when we will carefully say thinking, walking or talking. Style shifts may be quite deliberate or unconscious.

Listen to the following clip from a videospeech made by President Clinton to an audience of black ministers in Memphis on the anniversary of a speech made by 
videoMartin Luther King, Jr.  Many people said that at times, Clinton sounded very like King. Do you agree? What do you notice about his speech? Do any sounds seem to be more deliberate than others?

Clinton: The other day on the front page of our own paper the nation’s capital, are we talking about “worl” peace or “worl” conflict? No. Big article on the front page of the Washington Post about an eleven year old “chil” planning her funeral, ‘these are the hymns I want sung, this is the dress I “wanna” wear, I know I’m not “gonna” live very long’ that is not the freedom, the freedom to die before you’re a teenager, is not what Martin Luther King lived and died for.

Listen closely to the phrase “an eleven year old child” or when he says “these are the hymns I want sung, this is the dress I wanna wear.” Do you agree that he sounds like Martin Luther King? What other things do you notice about his speech? Do any seem to be more deliberate than others?

The Texas Bush

president geroge w. bush, 2001 inauguration

It’s not heredity but environment that determines how a person speaks. The only aspect of language hardwired in the human brain is the ability to learn whatever language(s) a child hears as he or she is growing up. And when parents speaking one way move to a place where people speak in another way, the children have a choice: talk like mom and dad, or talk like your friends. Sooner or later, the friends usually win out.

So it is that George W. Bush, born in New Haven, Conn., but raised in Texas, should talk with a Texas twang even though his parents do not. When he was 2, his family moved to Odessa in west Texas; two years later they moved to nearby Midland, where he spent his boyhood and language-formative years. The Midland Chamber of Commerce declares: “George W. Bush benefited from his father’s decision to break free of the ‘noble’ life of the Eastern establishment. Instead of limousine rides, young George pedaled a bike around the streets of Midland….”

Not-so-young George holds to that attitude today. “The values Midland holds near to its heart are the same ones I hold near to my heart,” Bush has said. He was referring to optimism and the notion that “the sky’s the limit,” but he could be referring to language too. And despite the best of Eastern educations, Dubya has held on to those Midland values, in accent as well as worldview. It may have helped that he returned to Midland after his education elsewhere, living there from 1975 to 1987.

Dubya’s speech is r-ful. His part of Texas, like Lyndon Johnson’s, and like Clinton’s Arkansas, is well beyond the limits of r-less Southern territory. But more than Johnson’s, though less than Clinton’s, Bush’s speech has the southern and Texan ah for i. It’s not pure ah in words like lives and child and mind, but it’s not a strong Northern long i either. He also has a folksy style that sometimes changes –ing to –in’ in words like talkin’ and gettin’, and that leaves out some syllables and consonants. He will say lemme and gotta and gonna not in prepared remarks, but freely in press conferences and interviews. His nickname Dubya comes from his pronunciation of his middle initial. He has quite a few — giving future presidential aspirants a clear indication that anything goes when it comes to presidential pronunciations.

… the words he mangles in his remarks... aren’t plain. They are well-educated, or nearly so: malfeance for malfeasance, admissions for emissions. So are many of the words he uses correctly, like paradigm. Too much education has spoiled a natural talent.

- Allan Metcalf, Presidential Voices

George W. Bush’s Folksiness

Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush sounds very much the same — folksy — to an audience at London’s Whitehall Palace as to an audience in El Paso, Texas. Bush prides himself on speaking plainly and not sounding too highly educated, and as a result is called unstuffy, relaxed, down to earth. Sociolinguists know that his use of language plays a powerful role in this perception. Language is a powerful social tool that has the ability to draw people together or drive them apart. Think about the fact that politicians will often say a few words in the language of a group that they are trying to court. Why should they do this? What does this accomplish?

videoGeorge W. Bush

Bush: “y y tambien voy a hablar un poquito en espanol”

Speaking Spanish is meant to show that the president understands the concerns of Spanish speakers. It seems as if he is “one of them.” Linguists talk about this use of language as indexing an in-group membership. Bush’s Texan colloquialisms and informal speech, which may be deliberate, can achieve the same effect. He is not perceived as an imposing intellectual, projecting an image to which many people relate. They may feel that he is more like them because he says something that they might say in a way that they might say it themselves. Even speech errors seem to work in his favor, as they tend to promote the image of a down-to-earth man of the people.

videoGeorge W. Bush

Bush: let’s talk about some issues “rait quick”

Language and Politics:  Inside-Out

Another interesting recent development involves a rhetorical shift aimed at appealing to the voting power of the South and West. Presidents and presidential candidates have tried to distance themselves from the Washington, D.C. establishment  — seen as a symbol of power, money, influence, big government, and waste and abuse. Much of the political discourse surrounding the 2000 presidential election touched on whether one was a “Washington Insider.”

Although both men had somewhat similar linguistic backgrounds, the media often pegged Democratic candidate Al Gore as being too stuffy and not being “Southern enough,” while George W. Bush never seemed to have that label stick to him. Because Bush sounded “more relaxed,” he was perceived as having been despite his obvious connections — less shaped by Washington. Language use reinforced that view. Gore frequently did not use contracted forms such as “I’m” or “It’s,” whereas candidate Bush almost always did. This tiny, almost imperceptible difference in their speaking styles as noted by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg may have been one reason listeners sensed that Gore was more “stuffy” or “arrogant” than Bush. Listeners could not have told you that Gore contracted less often, but rather that Gore somehow sounded more formal. A tiny linguistic choice had a perceptible social consequence.

The linguistic choices of 2004’s Democratic nominee John Kerry, a non-Texan and non-Southerner, are also interesting to analyze. Midway through the Democratic primaries, Kerry — who had a privileged Boston upbringing — was observed to drop more of the [g] sound at the end of words such as talking, thinking and wanting. The result: Kerry began to sound less stuffy, more informal and possibly more approachable. Newspapers including the Boston Globe said this style change was one factor that helped turn around Kerry’s campaign.

The issue of “Washington insiders” is negotiated in political campaigns and general political discourse.  These rhetorical moves are positioning moves. Listen to what video George Bush says here about Gore’s upbringing:

“you can understand why, he was raised in a hotel in Washington.”

In saying this, George W. Bush accomplishes a positioning of Gore as a Washington “insider” and simultaneously positions himself as an “outsider.” Listeners may infer that being an insider is undesirable; why else would Bush raise it in this manner? Gore could not respond until the next news cycle, by which time it may have been too late to alter voter perceptions. Bush’s use of a Texan speech variety is another way to symbolically distance himself from the East Coast, making it easier to be perceived as an outsider and claim everything said to be positive about this identity.

<>We all use language daily to create an identity. The choices of people in the public eye are more visible and the stakes much higher. Language is and will continue to be an important tool for creating identity. This is no less true for presidents than for the rest of us. Now that you’ve learned about the speaking styles of the presidents, perhaps you will appreciate how they, as do we all, contribute to what it means to “Speak American.”

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chambers, J.K., Peter Trudgill, and Natalie Schilling-Estes, eds.The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2004.
  • Metcalf, Allan. Presidential Voices, Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. Houghton, Mifflin, 2004.
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes.  American English: dialects and variation. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
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Anna Marie Trester is a PhD student in Sociolinguistics at Georgetown University. Her research interests include language and society, discourse analysis, language and style, language and the media, and the construction and performance of identity through language.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

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