In the wake of his numerous gaffes and “um, er, uh… oops!” flubs on televised debates and in campaign appearances, Texas governor Rick Perry launched a new ad motto: “I’m a doer, not a talker,” as if that’s supposed to make us all feel more confident in his presidential abilities. You may have seen one of his TV ads, like this one (which inexplicably aired even in California this weekend):
Newsflash to Rick: no matter what good things you’ve done, you can’t just be a doer if you want to get elected president. You’ve got to be a talker too, and a good one. In this age of soundbites, 24-hour cable news media ubiquity, televised debates almost weekly and must-do “gotcha” media interviews (Meet the Press, etc), a president has to be talking all the time, in front of the world, hopefully eloquently. It’s part of the job.
A teleprompter doesn’t make a president a good speaker. George W. Bush had a teleprompter and he never really came across as eloquent. Obama has a teleprompter and uses it well. Whatever else we might say about Obama, we have to agree: he’s a good speaker. He’s a good talker.
In the post-Dubya world, I think America (and the world) wants a talker in the White House. That is, a talker who is also a doer. We want someone who comes across as intelligent, someone who speaks with ease about a number of issues, someone who has mastered the art of rhetoric and can come up with the right things to say on the fly. We want a talker who is eloquent not because he or she is well-coached or can read a teleprompter well, but because they are smart and know how to think critically in the moment and respond to questions with genuine, nuanced, accurate answers. We want someone who is conversant in the language and ideas of the media elites, even while that insider/intelligentsia rhetoric doesn’t define them. We don’t want someone who will fumble around for answers to basic policy questions.
Rick Perry is not a bad guy. And we all make mistakes. We’ve all been in that “frozen” moment where we can’t recall something obvious. But a serious candidate for president of the United States and leader of the free world cannot make as many “talker” faux-pas as Perry has. A serious president is a doer, yes, but must also be a talker. They must be both. Otherwise we won’t believe anything they have to say.