Hey, buddy, how’s it going? What, too familiar? You might say the same thing about how our political leaders are communicating with us these days.
In e-mails to potential campaign donors, President Obama uses such terse subject lines as “Hey” and “Wow.” First lady Michelle joins in with e-mails labeled “I want to meet you” and “Me again.”
On Twitter, Obama kicks off a live chat from the official White House account with the lower-case message, “this is barack — let’s get this started! — bo.”
Elsewhere in the Twitterverse, Newark Mayor Cory Booker hits back at critics of his controversial “Meet the Press” appearance with the words, “Sorry I make u sick,” followed by “Best we can do is learn from our mistakes, not let them stop u but make u stronger.”
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, pushes the 140-character limit by tweeting about his wife Barbara’s involvement with the Senate spouses’ dinner: “Tonite is annual dinner Senate spouse xpect us Senators to come to socialize w them. Im not much for events like this but Barb is head So!!!”
What has happened to the language of politics? Sure, in the age of e-mail, texting, and social media, many of us have grown accustomed to chatty informality—but why would politicians let this style overrun their usual tones of statesmanship and decorum? Have their young staffers taken the rhetorical reins?
New technology has long had an effect on how politicians shape their messages for the public. When the advent of train travel turned campaigning into a series of whistle-stop tours, candidates had to boil down their oratory into crisp, punchy patter. Radio broadcasts encouraged an even more familiar style of address, most famously with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cozy “fireside chats.”
Then came television, which allowed even someone as untelegenic as Richard Nixon to brush off a brewing fund-raising scandal in 1952 with a casual, homey story about the gift of a dog that his children named Checkers: “And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Now, 60 years after the “Checkers” speech, politicians are taking advantage of ever-more direct modes of communication, in the form of e-mails, tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube clips. Not surprisingly, their language has followed suit: If you are approaching people so directly, it makes sense that your tone should more closely approximate a friend-to-friend chat.
But who is in charge of the politician’s “voice” in the new media landscape? Many e-mails, posts, and tweets are being ghost-written by communications teams, and with good reason. When politicians themselves take to Twitter, the combination of breezy familiarity and haiku-like constraint—compounded at times by senior citizenry amidst a young crowd—can lead to decidedly bizarre results. There is something refreshing about receiving unedited messages without the intervention of handlers and commentators, but much depends on the politician’s gift of gab—and thumbing skills. Let’s not forget the to-do in 2010 over Sarah Palin tweeting the “word” “refudiate.”
Obama has been gingerly venturing into this world, with his Twitter live-chat from an Iowa campaign stop last month billed as the first by a sitting president. In video of the Q&A session released by the White House, Obama is clearly trying to have fun, but also still getting to know the medium. Told that he has crafted a tweet of exactly 140 characters, and that such an achievement is called a “twoosh” (short for “Twitter swoosh”), he wryly calls himself “the twoosh master.”
Obama and his campaign are more experienced when it comes to fund-raising e-mails, which offer another way to “speak directly” to the public. To make these appeals rise through a sea of spam and irrelevant newsletters, campaigners have learned to mimic the voice of a trusted friend. But it’s all too easy to go one step too far, tipping the tone from friendly into sleazy. An offer to attend an Obama fund-raiser at George Clooney’s house in April, for example, which appeared to come from Barack himself, had the subject line “Clooney and Me.” “Those three words are surely the topic of a million romantic fantasies,” wrote Robin Abcarian in the Los Angeles Times.
The “hey” style of the Obama campaign’s e-mail appeals may be effective in cutting through the clutter of people’s in boxes, but it still can be off-putting to receive what “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart recently called “those super-casual bro-mails.” The faux-familiar messages have even spawned a site, heygirlobama.tumblr.com, that pairs Obama’s intimate subject lines with photos of hunky Ryan Gosling, in a spinoff of the popular “Hey Girl” Internet meme.
The Tumblr blogging platform was the home of another inspired political mashup, “Texts from Hillary,” a viral hit in April that combined photos of Hillary Rodham Clinton coolly appraising her cellphone with imagined text-message conversations. The creators of the blog brought it to a triumphant conclusion after Madame Secretary herself chimed in with an appropriately slangy salvo, thanking them “for the many LOLZ” (laughs).
Though Clinton likely had assistance from her twenty-something staffers in crafting her message, she managed to thread the new-media needle by demonstrating both hipness and an ironic acknowledgment that online lingo isn’t exactly appropriate for the secretary of state. Self-awareness is a key virtue in the new terrain of political communication, and a healthy dose of it can ensure that aging politicians don’t appear ridiculous donning youthful digital fashions.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of
VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com.
He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.