In an election year, even pronouns can be political

In an election year, candidates bring out their royal ‘we’

Columbia News ServiceApril 12, 2012 

— In January 2011, Jon Huntsman, then the U.S ambassador to China, suggested he might seek the Republican nomination for president this year, an undertaking that would have required him to relinquish his diplomatic post.

“You know, I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position,” Huntsman told Newsweek in response to a question about his presidential aspirations. “But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.”

Huntsman’s use of the pronoun “we” caught the attention of Ed Walsh, who served as a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush.

“Who is the ‘we’ here?” Walsh recalled thinking.

Good question. As this election year unfolds, the first person plural – nicknamed the “royal we” – is getting a workout. From the GOP presidential candidates to President Barack Obama, the 2012 White House hopefuls alternate between “I” and “we” as they try to rally supporters, win votes and position themselves for posterity.

To the untrained ear, candidates may sound strange when they phrase statements about themselves as individual people in the plural. “You begin to wonder who they think is speaking to whom about what,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

But silly as it may sound, it’s not a mistake. The pronouns that pour forth from presidential aspirants are carefully scripted, for the most part, as politicians follow a grammatical strategy they think will boost their chances of winning.

For example, candidates tend to use “we” when speaking about their campaigns and “I” when trying to communicate something they, as individuals, intend to do.

“When you’re president, and you say ‘we,’ you tend to be speaking for the country,” Jamieson said. “When running for president, they’re talking about a campaign, the collective ideology.”

While a presidential election year brings pronoun problems to prime time, the politics of the first person is nothing new. From Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “I shall go to Korea” speech in the 1952 presidential campaign, to Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” news conference in 1973, to Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” and the Obama campaign’s “Yes, we can” slogan in 2008, the first person has come to define presidential rhetoric.

Jamieson cited President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement at a news conference in November 1966 that he was about to undergo gall bladder surgery as an example of how bizarre the “royal we” can sound. “It is anticipated that we will have an anesthetic and the operation will take perhaps less than an hour,” Johnson said, creating the impression that someone else – perhaps Mrs. Johnson? – intended to undergo surgery, too.

The third person is more of a problem. In the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole referred to himself repeatedly as Bob Dole, creating the impression the candidate was talking about someone else.

Though times change, the pronoun strategy endures. “We’re starting to gear up, starting to get back into that campaign mode,” Obama told supporters in March.

“We’re going to get more before this night is over,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential hopeful, told supporters last month as voting ended in 11 state primaries.

But both men use “I” to make themselves sound like decisive leaders. “I want us to forge our own future,” Obama said recently in a speech about U.S. about energy independence. “I will cut taxes for job creators,” Romney says on the stump.

Bob Lehrman, who served as a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore and who now teaches speechwriting at American University, compared the decision whether to use “I” or “we” to the way members of basketball team might speak during a game. “If you’re saying, ‘Coach, I can make that shot, get me the ball, I can do that,’ you’re making a pledge about what you can do personally,” Lehrman said. “If you’re captain of the team and you’re huddling, you say, ‘We can do this, get so-and-so the ball.’”

Eric Schnure, who worked alongside Lehrman in the White House and who teaches with him, added that candidates use “we” to send a message they have a sea of supporters behind them. “The connotation is they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” Schnure said.

At least some voters hear it that way, too. “‘We’ makes voters feel empowered – he’s speaking for us,” said Stephen Sowers, 21, a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “If we get together, we can get somewhere,” said Brian Rasul Amin, 53, an interfaith minister from New Jersey.

Walsh said President Bush’s speechwriters “were fairly conscious” that their boss preferred to avoid the first person singular, and tailored his speeches accordingly. Still, Walsh cited the president’s speech to Congress following the 9/11 attacks as an instance when the president used “I” intentionally.

“I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people,” Bush told Congress on Sept. 20, 2001.

“He wants to be forceful and invoke his status as commander in chief, and his personal duty to protect the country,” Walsh said. “There are times when it’s necessary.”

Sometimes the first person plural offers politicians a safe haven. With “we,” “mistakes can be distributed appropriately, allowing the blame to be passed around,” said Mike Long, who worked as a speechwriter for former Senator Fred Thompson and who now teaches at Georgetown University.

“We” also can help politicians avoid sounding boastful.

“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet,” Gore told CNN in 1999 – a comment that gave opponents an excuse to bash him politically. “People lose no opportunity to find you guilty of hubris from saying ‘I’ when what you mean is ‘we,’” Lehrman said.

Jamieson said that unless a candidate is clearly talking about his or her individual self, most voters assume using “we” makes sense.

“The most famous we is, ‘We the people,’ the collective embrace,” she said. “Nobody says, ‘Who are we?’ Everybody gets that.”

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