On the March 4, 2007, commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, an animated Hillary Clinton spoke from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church, borrowing lines from a James Cleveland hymn. “Ah don’t feel noways tahred!” the senator declared, her drawl booming out to the crowd. The same day found Barack Obama y’alling to his own Selma audience: “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama,” he said. “I’m here because somebody marched for our freedom; I’m here because y’all sacrificed for me.”
The southern-spiced speeches, not surprisingly, soon made it to YouTube—the former, as “Kentucky Fried Hillary”; the latter, as “Barack Obama, Man of 1,000 Voices”—from which they were, in another fairly predictable development, picked up and roundly mocked by the media. “Well, I don’t feel noways tired, neither,” scoffed E. D. Hill on Fox News Live, after re-airing “KF(HR)C” for her audience. Wonkette, the tongue-in-cheek political blog, created a “Pride Goeth Before the Drawl Dept.” to mark—and mock—Obama’s speech. (One reader comment: “I’m from Hawaii and I live in the South now, so I guess I can’t really hear either of his ‘blackcents.’ ”) The syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an op-ed about Clinton’s speech, likening the senator’s performance to “Granny Clampett auditioning on American Idol.” Bill Moyers observed that Obama used an “inflection of the southern dialect that you don’t hear in the rest of his speeches,” while the author Shelby Steele, speaking with him on Bill Moyers Journal, argued that Obama is sometimes “John F. Kennedy. Sometimes he’s Martin Luther King. Sometimes he’s Stokely Carmichael one cannot help but wonder who’s the real [Obama]—what’s his voice?”
It’s a good question. What is his voice? And what’s Clinton’s? “It did seem sort of strange to hear a Yankee affecting a southern drawl,” Fox’s Hill said of the New York senator, by way of explaining the fun she’d had at her expense. But Clinton, though raised in Chicago and educated in the Northeast, spent eighteen years in Arkansas—longer than she’s lived anywhere else. (While campaigning in South Carolina, Clinton joked about the criticism of her Selma performance, explaining to the New York Daily News that her geographical movement has made her “multilingual.”) And Obama’s “blackcent,” such as it is, is tempered by a childhood spent in Indonesia and Hawaii, by an immediate family from the Midwest (“I got my name from Kenya and my accent from Kansas,” he’s fond of saying), and by a young adulthood spent in California, New York, Boston, and Chicago. As the candidates’ brand of peripatetic existence becomes increasingly customary, regional accents are becoming increasingly rare. As they do, however, their mystique, for better or worse, seems to grow. And the Henry Higginses in the media seem to find increasing meaning in accents—particularly when politicians are the ones affecting them.
Steele, for his part, sees accents, he told Moyers, as “masks” that conceal a politician’s true identity. The linguist George Lakoff, however, who, “has been paying attention to Obama’s language in great detail,” hears in Obama’s speech not disguise, but diversity. Lakoff detects three voices in Obama’s tones: the “inspirational,” religious Obama is influenced by the cadences of Dr. King and black churches. The “professional” Obama conveys a tone of frank seriousness. Obama’s “street” accent comes from his days as a community organizer and activist in Chicago. The idea that we all have one “natural,” authentic way of speaking, Lakoff adds, is a “folk theory.”
Perhaps. But, if so, it’s a theory perpetuated by the press. Consider that Steele and Moyers conducted their conversation about the Selma speeches and the candidates’ accents in January 2008—more than ten months after the speeches were given. (That’s about ten years in political time.) Consider as well that, when the media assess candidates via their accents, more often than not, they pan those accents as phony and pandering.