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September 16, 2004 - 'Presidential Voices' - 2004-09-17

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: September 16, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the voice of American presidents.

RS: Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society has just written a timely book. It's called "Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush."

AA: He listened to recordings, where he could. He got a sense of how the early presidents sounded by what people had to say about their speeches.

Allan Metcalf says in the late 1700s, George Washington – America’s first president – had an especially formal style.

ALLAN METCALF: "He wanted to prove that an ordinary citizen, an ordinary citizen of the enlightenment of a free country, would be as worthy and dignified as any of the crowned heads of Europe. For example, his inaugural address begins with, 'Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month.' And he goes on in that vein, and he was such an influence that most presidents since him have needed to be somewhat dignified and elevated.

"And even in the nineteenth century, the first six presidents were all rather aristocratic themselves. But then along came Andrew Jackson and then a number of other presidents who boasted of having been born in log cabins, common men, but nevertheless they, too, followed along in Washington's example."

RS: "What would it have been like to have listened to Washington?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, for one thing, you wouldn't have had to spend too much time. His false teeth were so painful that he rarely spoke for longer than ten minutes at a time. And they were painful because they had springs in them to keep his mouth open. So he had to exert pressure to keep his mouth closed."

RS: "Allan, have any words or phrases come into American English because of the president's speeches?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Some have. President Jefferson was noted for his innovations in vocabulary. He had words like Anglomania, electioneering, belittle -- he seems to be among the first to use that. I think the most impressive, though, the most creative of all the presidents, was Teddy Roosevelt. He was able to come up with terms like muckraker and even lunatic fringe. And bully pulpit -- he called the presidency a bully pulpit, meaning it was a wonderful place to give speeches and be listened to. He used the term bully all the time as a term of enthusiasm."

RS: "Say we wanted to run for president. What kind of advice would you give us in order to write a good speech."

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, all you have to do is go back to George Washington and then you go back to the other presidents who followed in Washington's footsteps, or mouthsteps or whatever, using the phrases that they used. And you'll find as you look at the different inaugural addresses that they are almost interchangeable. So in my book I came up with an all-purpose presidential inaugural address that you or anyone can use when you become president. And it begins with:

"'Fellow citizens' (which George Washington and his successors said) conscious of 'the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which my country called me' (that's Washington) but knowing that 'the will of the people is the source, and the happiness of the people the end, of all legitimate government upon earth' (that's John Quincy Adams) I pledge my 'attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it' (that's John Adams).

"'The business of our nation goes forward' (said Ronald Reagan, and that's suitable in all occasions). 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself' (said Franklin Roosevelt). 'Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration ... But the themes of this day he would know: our nation's grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity' (said George W. Bush). So 'God bless you and may God bless America" (said Ronald Reagan and his successors).'"

RS: "That was Ronald Reagan?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Yes, he was the innovator for the 'God bless you, and may God bless America.'"

AA: "So before that, how did presidents end their speeches?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Oh that's a good question. I'll have to look it up. [laughter]"

RS: "It sounds like you had a lot of fun writing this book. Any surprises along the way?"

ALLAN METCALF: "The chief surprise was that the presidents didn't speak that well. But I also was surprised at how shy some of our presidents were about public speaking. Thomas Jefferson, such a great writer, declined to speak in public when the Declaration of Independence was being debated, the thing that he had written. He didn't say a word.

"I was surprised at how unimpressive Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address was. His second was tremendous and his Gettysburg Address was great. But his first inaugural attempted to give a lawyer's argument against secession, which totally failed.

"And I was surprised that George W. Bush, who makes blunders, not only isn't bothered but in fact relishes them, and shortly after he was elected president, he gave a talk where he read aloud from the 'Book of Bushisms,' laughing at them just as much as anybody else."

AA: Allan Metcalf is executive secretary of the American Dialect Society and an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois. His newest book is called "Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush."

RS: And that's all for this week. is our e-mail address. And our Web site is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.