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.
Even native southerner John Edwards hasn’t been immune to the accusation that his drawl is inauthentic. Before the former senator’s departure from the presidential race back in January, the late William F. Buckley Jr.—himself no stranger to accusations of accent cultivation—wrote a column entitled “Edwards Hate-Talk,” in which he confessed that his dislike of Edwards is not “entirely ideological”; it’s “personal,” a bad reaction to “the carefully maintained Southern accent, which you can hear him practicing before his lucrative appearances before the juries who listened to him and believed they were listening to a brother, a good old Southerner, with all the right instincts for justice.”
But Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson have strong southern accents, as well; why aren’t their accents accused of being “carefully maintained”? The latter’s drawl is particularly strong—yet, according to The New York Times’s Susan Saulny, Thompson’s “drawl, small-town roots and conservative themes play well in the Bible Belt South.” Rich Galen, at the time Thompson’s political director, told Saulny that the former Tennessee senator’s audiences “understand his accent. There’s a connection between Southerners that we Northerners don’t understand.” But what was the candidate saying to his Bible Belt constituency that a Thompson supporter from Seattle or Cleveland couldn’t understand? (And when Buckley imagines “a brother, a good old Southerner,” does he imagine Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and first-generation son of Indian immigrants?) Put Al Gore, Katherine Harris, and Jesse Jackson—drawlers all—in Thompson’s audience. Would there still be a harmonious convergence? There may very well be some shared southern history among this group, but that they all share a vision for the future of this country is unlikely. There are as many kinds of southern accents as there are regions of the South, and there is, of course, more than one kind of southerner. Thompson’s supporters didn’t go to hear him drawl; they went to hear him speak because they already endorsed his political agenda.
And yet in Saulny’s assessment, the drawl was an essential element of Thompson’s political identity—and of his supporters’ reaction to that identity. Which is a common theme in the media: the accent, in many ways, has become a mirror of the political reality in the South, embodying the region’s shift from a Democratic stronghold—bastion of populism’s Huey Longs and George Wallaces—to a Republican one. That shift has been on a slow-burn build since Barry Goldwater, after voting against the Civil Rights Act, won a series of southern states in the 1964 election, and since Richard Nixon implemented his Southern Strategy to capture the segregationist bloc of the Democratic party. Because of that shift, a politician’s accent—in starkest terms, southern or not—is, in some ways, not just an indicator of electability, but a determinant. As the columnist Victor Davis Hanson observed, “No Democratic presidential candidate has been elected without a Southern accent in the half-century since 1960.” And the South, Hanson went on to argue, is emblematic of the conservative shift in the nation at large.
“If politics were static,” the political reporter Matt Bai wrote in The New York Times Magazine in January, “you would assume that Edwards would have the best profile for campaigning in the South; like Johnson, Carter and Bill Clinton he is a native Southerner with a healthy drawl and a populist bent.” But politics, Bai noted, is dynamic—like the South itself.
The accent, played out in the press, has less to do with authenticity—John Edwards’s drawl is as real as it gets—and more to do with politics: in short, we in the media allow GOP candidates to have accents because the South is, politically, “theirs”; Democratic candidates, who have ceded the South to their rivals, don’t have the same permission. Given that construct, even the Democrats’ authentic accents are inauthentic.
Speaking on Hardball with Chris Matthews before the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards remarked that he was feeling good about his chances to become the Democratic nominee because the last two Democrats elected president “tahlk like thee-us.” He smiled and pointed to his mouth. A week later, in New Hampshire, Edwards again told Matthews that he had the best chance of beating a Republican in the national election because “people in rural America respond” to him—and “in the South, a place [where] the Democrats traditionally have trouble,” voters will respond, as well.
It didn’t work out too well for Edwards, in no small part because the media portrayed him—and his accent—as phony. Which has to do with Edwards himself, to be sure, but also with the region that made him. In a 2004 article in CJR, Jacob Levenson noted that “nobody seems to know exactly what to make of the South anymore.” And that four-year-old assessment is just as true today. The drawl embodies a region that still holds a certain mystique for the country at large, a region often shorthanded by stereotype in the press rather than explored. It’s worth examining why the South still confounds so many—and why we allow only select politicians to give it voice.
Jane Hammons teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley.