Assessing Gov. Walker’s Public Speaking

It’s almost tongue-in-cheek to talk about Gov. Scott Walker’s speaking style; virtually all Wisconsin has an opinion of him that rests on more than a manner of delivery.

And yet, and yet — Team Walker has, and has always had, national ambitions for their man. Walker may be traveling across the country to collect donations against a recall, but he means to represent a national movement, not simply to collect campaign contributions. There are critics within the state, and Republicans beyond it, who cannot imagine a national role for a governor who has elicited such controversy. They may be surprised.

If Walker should be recalled, he’ll have no national future. He’ll be no one’s martyr – it’s other Republicans who will criticize him then (to draw contrast to their own, professedly more adroit handling of budgets, unions, etc.)

If he’s retained, though, he’ll have a national presence (or at least the chance for one).

In late January, Gov. Walker delivered his second State of the State address at the Wisconsin Capitol. From that address one may assess Gov. Walker’s speaking style: he’s been in office for over a year, the speech is one for which he had time to prepare, and during it he experiences some of the ever-present heckling that has dogged him since his push against public-employee collective bargaining.

(Better than a friendly reception, an occasionally hostile one reveals a speaker’s natural ability to parry effectively. It’s an admirable talent, if uncommon among American politicians who mostly speak without interruption.)

Below I offer an assessment of Gov. Walker’s delivery. (As Walker debated Milwaukee Mayor Barrett during the 2010 election, I’ll consider his skill as a debater separately. For this post: How’s he as a speaker?)

Watch January 25, 2012 – State of the State on PBS. See more from WPT Presents.

Attire. Dark suit, blue shirt, red tie: conventional, and subdued without a white shirt. (Those seated behind him wear white shirts; Walker’s in the more muted look.) This was an effective choice; the fewer the contrasts in Walker’s attire, the better.

Manner. He’s confident in his manner. In this speech, he seems sure of himself.

Walker sometimes gently bobs his head, a few quick times in succession, after making what he believes is a sound point. It’s an odd and unnecessary habit, as though he’s agreeing with himself.

He also holds his thumb to his fingers the way Kennedy did, the way Clinton did in imitation of Kennedy, and how just about everyone nowadays is taught to use his hands. It’s the only kind of hand gesture that many speech coaches will allow. There could be no drinking game around the frequency of politicians’ overuse of the thumb-on cupped-fingers gesture; one would be blind-drunk after only a portion of a speech.

Throughout, Walker ignores hecklers from the gallery. He just keeps talking, or waits briefly. There’s no surprise that he’d be heckled, and so he had time to adopt a responsive tactic.

The common response to heckling is to speak more loudly, and to repeat what one has already said, in the belief heckling rendered some words unintelligible. That’s a mistake – the speaker (someone in authority, after all) only looks weak if he repeats himself or needs to shout.

Walker doesn’t make this mistake.

There are three effective responses to heckling: keep speaking in an even tone, spar with the heckler, or wait quietly. Even waiting quietly truly conveys strength – one waits until the heckler goes silent, and then begins – in the end, for all the heckler’s invective, the speaker’s words issue forth when the heckling torrent subsides. Deciding beforehand which one to use is important; one should know one’s plan, implement that plan with confidence, and substitute another tactic only if necessary.

Delivery. Steady, with almost no hesitation. It’s one tempo, one rhythm, all the way through. Gov. Walker uses a teleprompter, and delivers his remarks in the same way that anyone familiar in the use of those machines would. A variable cadence would be better – far more moving – but there are few politicians who speak that way, anymore. Most move at the same speed as Walker does in this State of the State address.

There’s room for a more natural approach, to be sure. Most of Gov. Walker’s opponents, however, would have delivered their speeches in the same way he has. He doesn’t get the benefit he would if he spoke with the changes in rhythm and tone of a more extemporaneous style, but he loses little with this delivery.

Rhetoric. There’s nothing stirring here, from a state that hasn’t had fine oratory in a long time. It’s more than sad that walker calls for the next generation to enjoy a state ‘at least as great’ as the present one. It’s like a Van Halen lyric in which David Lee Roth tries to assure a woman that he “ain’t the worst that she’s seen.” (If she’s someone likely to associate with David Lee, then he probably isn’t the worst that she’s seen.)

How many Democrats, though, are better rhetoricians? Walker’s at no disadvantage if no one’s better.

This is a workman-like performance, from a man who speaks as he governs: one speed, ahead.

Democrats may despise Walker, but they’ll not win on his terms, at his tempo. To win, a Democratic opponent will need to knock him off that pace. They’ll need a candidate who can get under his skin, force him to debate, and who can charm Wisconsin while setting him on edge. It can be done, but it cannot be done unless an opponent is alternately biting and funny.

Otherwise, Gov. Walker’s State-of-the-State approach well may be enough to win his retention.

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