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Silver-tongued vs. eloquent: Do voters know the difference?

Speaking ability is an important trait. Judge it wisely.

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With Super Tuesday upon us, and its blizzard of last-minute candidate speech making, it's time to finally face the question: What importance do voters actually place on a politician's oratorical skill? This essential quality, about which Americans are deeply conflicted and in denial, has rightly surged to center stage in this year's Democratic primary race.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the meteoric rise of Barack Obama is largely attributable to a single speech he delivered four years ago at the national party convention in Boston. There may be no other American political figure whose career has been so profoundly enhanced by one instance of oratory.

Second, Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken pains to undercut Senator Obama by accusing him of dazzling voters with fancy rhetorical flourishes. "Words are not action," Senator Clinton asserted in the final New Hampshire debate. "As beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action."

Admittedly, Clinton's remarks were mostly a tactical ploy (her husband was often similarly accused, and for similar reasons). Nonetheless, she has inadvertently highlighted our troubled attitude concerning the value of political public speaking.

Americans believe that oratorical skill is a legitimate reflection of intellectual acuity and depth of character. Then again, we believe it also is merely a form of flimflam, a practiced slickness shrewdly employed by those wishing to distract us from substantive shortcomings.

The notion of the "good talker" has long vexed Americans. Eloquent and slick are often perceived as two sides of the same coin, and our history contains as many examples of being bamboozled by inspiring charlatans as being inspired by bona fide visionaries.

Yet most of us believe there's a correlation, and possibly a very strong one, between verbal skill and intellectual aptitude. On the other hand, most of us know good people who are not particularly good with words, and bright individuals who regularly stumble and stutter. Some may prefer straight talk, but "plain-spoken" remains a mark of praise mostly when it describes someone's integrity, not their speaking style.


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