The Substance of Style

The Substance of Style June 24, 2008

Amidst an insightful piece on Obama’s use of language, there’s this interesting thesis about what style indicates about substance.

How much can you tell about a candidate’s fitness to lead a country based on a single clause? The substance/style debate has been around for centuries—and, like all the other venerable binaries, is probably best considered as a symbiosis. Too often, style is dismissed as merely a sauce on the nutritious bread of substance, when in fact it’s inevitably a form of substance itself. This goes double for the presidency, where brilliant policy requires brilliant public discourse. If you can think your way through a sentence, through the algorithms involved in condensing information verbally and pitching it to an audience, through the complexities of animating historical details into narrative, then you can think your way through a policy paper, or a diplomatic discussion, or a 3 A.M. phone call. Bush’s difficulty with basic units of syntax has not been trivial: It signals a wider habit of mind that has extended to every corner of governance. Hillary’s tendency to express herself in distant clichés very likely lost her the nomination—and, one might argue, rightfully so. Style tells us, in a second, what substance couldn’t tell us in a year. It’s silly to downplay the importance of verbal intelligence to a job that makes you the mouthpiece of arguably the most influential nation in the world.

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