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February 04, 2007

A Question About Obama

(Posted by John.)

I've been out all weekend, so this will be short and simple.  I understand how and why Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama was offensive, but surely it's not out of line to describe him as articulate?  The last person I read point this out was Matthew Yglesias, but it's a general point that many politicians are simply lousy public speakers.  (I can't stand watching Bush speak anymore, I just can't.)  Obama had one of the best speeches of the 2004 Presidential season -- by any standard he's simply a fantastic speaker, easily comparable to any of the other great public speakers in America.

Is "articulate" even the right word for that?  How can we complement the Junior Senator from Illinois without resorting to language with an unfortunate racial undertone?

February 4, 2007 | Permalink


One of the funny things was when he distinguished Obama from previous black candidates by calling him articulate. Jesse Jackson deserves that description pretty strongly, and whatever else one should say about Al Sharpton, he's a pretty articulate guy.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 4, 2007 11:25:13 PM

It's not hard.

Posted by: Scott Stiefel | Feb 4, 2007 11:30:35 PM

What Scott said. The problem with "articulate" is that, well, it is rather faint praise when you think about it. What's it opposed to, inarticulate? And that doesn't even get into the minefield of racial stereotypes.

"Eloquent" is much more "like Keith Olbermann" and much less "not like George Bush".

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Feb 4, 2007 11:37:18 PM

Perhaps "eloquent" would be a better word, but I can't really say that calling him "articulate" is negative, as many people have implied recently. Certainly there are a good number of inarticulate politicians and Obama is clearly not one of them. George Bush is probably the best example, but there are others. Howard Dean isn't always as articulate as I'd like him to be. Obviously Joe Biden suffers from an inability to articulate his thoughts--at least that's what I'd like to believe.

Posted by: Eric the Political Hack | Feb 4, 2007 11:49:02 PM

Scott: Does "eloquent" not carry the same baggage? I ask this sincerely because frankly I just don't know these things.

There's the obvious point that I don't think Biden could have used any synonym for articulate and emerged clean -- the context of the word was pretty damning.

Posted by: John | Feb 4, 2007 11:50:11 PM

Besides eloquent, I would also suggest "inspiring" or "charismatic", to focus not so much just on the choice of words but also their desired effect. As a rule of thumb, if it sounds right in describing a good Bill Clinton speech, the word is probably appropriate for Obama.

Posted by: jfaberuiuc | Feb 4, 2007 11:50:40 PM

Or you could just call him "articulate," and realize that changing norms have removed some of the sneer from some words. Honest to gawd, if that's the only tell available to you, you shouldn't be using it.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Feb 4, 2007 11:53:23 PM

The problem with the term 'articulate' is that we rarely see it used in reference to white guys. It usually pops up in reference to a black person who is capable of speaking coherently. Thus, it is a loaded racial term.

Posted by: global yokel | Feb 4, 2007 11:57:06 PM


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 4, 2007 11:58:49 PM

"Articulate" would have been fine if Biden hadn't tied it up with race. Wasn't thinking too well.

Jesse Jackson deserves that description pretty strongly, and whatever else one should say about Al Sharpton, he's a pretty articulate guy.

Do they qualify as "mainstream"? (Not the way Obama does.)

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 5, 2007 12:01:11 AM

Calling an educated African American "articulate" is always problematic because it's something that's almost never said about educated whites (but fairly common for educated blacks). Plus it's a pretty superficial thing to say.

Maybe the rules are different for politicians, since by rule they have to be telegenic and able to master both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication. But Obama is a Senator and a serious Presidential candidate; you can't be taken seriously without a firm command of those abilities (present-executive excluded). "Articulate" comes with the package and doesn't need to be highlighted.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 5, 2007 12:04:31 AM

A Few Rules ...from Steve Gilliard

"3) You're really articulate

Really? I guess that must be rare on Harvard Law Review." ...SG

Course, there ain't no racism in the American South anymore, but being from Canada, couldn't expect you to know the piddling details of American code-word politics

"5) You're not like those others

Filthy fucking niggers which destroy everything" ...SG

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 5, 2007 12:06:00 AM

As Chris Rock put it:
Whenever Colin Powell is on the news, white people give him the same compliments: "How do you feel about Colin Powell?", "He speaks so well! He's so well spoken. I mean he really speaks so well!" Like that's a compliment, shit. "He speaks so well" is not a compliment, okay? "He speaks so well" is some shit you say about retarded people that can talk. What do you mean he speaks so well? He's a fucking educated man! How the fuck you expect him to sound, you dirty motherfucker? "He speaks so well." What are you talking about? What voice were you expecting to come out of his mouth? "Imma drop me a bomb today"?!

Posted by: Jacob | Feb 5, 2007 12:11:10 AM

Well, it was either study racially offensive code words or the Great Depression, and code words was only offered at 8 AM.

Posted by: John | Feb 5, 2007 12:13:42 AM

Biden's words were ill-advised at very best, most likely they were outrageous stupid and condescending and possibly, racist. So no, really at no level is this little shitstorm joe's made for himself not well deserved. It's not a matter of not being able to compliment anyone. This isn't about some limbaughesque PC whining. This is about treating an educated man who has achieved much as though he just graduated from junior high school. "articulate"? "clean"? Come on. And as for the "mainstream" part of the biden's drunken rambling...errr...misspeaking, well, once again we have proof how bizarre the persecptive is of those who are in power.

Posted by: ice weasel | Feb 5, 2007 12:18:23 AM

It may be that we don't normally describe people as "articulate," but that's because it usually isn't relevant. Not so with politicians. Bush's inarticulate speech is often remarked, and Edwards, particularly, is praised for his articulateness (a word that doesn't seem very articulate to me). I think Clinton is unusually articulate as well, but she seems more cautious in her speech than Edwards, so it sounds more forced. Obama is also unusually articulate, but as others have said, "eloquent" better captures his most remarkable trait relating to speech. I think he leaves the others in the race in the shade in that skill.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 5, 2007 12:42:07 AM

I gave articulate a pass but what the fuck was up with clean.

Posted by: Biden (D-Slave State) | Feb 5, 2007 12:55:04 AM

It's not the word by itself. It's the suspected attitude behind the word that bothers people. You can't divorce one from the other without rendering the conversation meaningless. That's true of just about any discussion. So I am confused why you are trying to do this here.

Let's be honest- at base the point is that African American's aren't equal to others. It's point that's always there. Biden's faux pas was to be upfront about it.

The general attitude behind the word: when you see someone who can play the game as well as anyone- well- that's so unique it must be pointed out.

It's the "wow, you are smart for a black man" syndrome that if you are African American and obtained a higher education (or in my case a graduate degree), then the response comes up periodically. I'm not being PC about it. It's a kind of polite racism. When I got into the public ivy I intended for undergrad, this woman who knew my grades placed me third in my class, and that I had a high SAT score kept repeating the school name, and asking "you got in?" In truth others had gotten in as well, but in her mind I was so unique that it was impossible to imagine it.

It's the "you aren't like the others" syndrome. It can come up in weird ways. I am gay, and I was dating this white guy. I disagreed with him over healthcare policy (advice never discuss politics on a third date with a gay libertarian), and he fell back on well you are smart about this, but you are probably saying this because you are black. It's again the polite sense of others when race is always in the room although most try to pretend that it's not.

Actually on some level- I wish more liberals would be honest about these things. Sorry, a lot of times I just feel like there is this weird barrier to honestly discussing what I see on a frequent basis in the professional world in which I work.

Posted by: akaison | Feb 5, 2007 12:56:47 AM

The problem is in pointing out that the person who is articulate, is black, is surprising. There are many inarticulate whites, and no one makes reference to, one being articulate as being surprising.

Same thing as the Bush' administration's reports on mental illness, of which, are in reference to black mentally ill people, not schizophrenics, severely depressed or bipolar individuals.

It has been my experience that there is no difference in schizophrenia, depression or bipolar, based on race. These mental illness' effect all races the same, and maybe only a report on whether or not there are or were more frequent illness' based on race, would be more important, than whether or not we should treat black mentally ill people. Most, black mentally, ill are probably in jail, while whites, possibly more frequently, get refered to treatment.

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Posted by: Mark Robert Gates | Feb 5, 2007 1:36:32 AM

Is anyone really saying that it was racially insensitive to call him articulate? I thought the problem was that he was saying it was nice to see an african american politician who was {insert complimentary language}. The problem isn't the word, its the comparison to other african american leaders.


Posted by: R/W | Feb 5, 2007 2:08:50 AM

The NY Times Week in Review section had a pretty good, comprehensive analysis as to why "articulate" when used in the context of describing african-americans, is considered insulting

Posted by: sam | Feb 5, 2007 6:33:33 AM

Wow. So this is what the great American Civil Rights Movement has devolved down to: angry/hurtful responses to in inarticulate old man’s inartful attempt to say nice things about one of his colleagues.

No, its not about child poverty, teenage mothers, absent fathers, seemingly ever present violence and drugs, a 25% incarceration rate, gangs, substantial lack of buy in to the positive outcomes of educational effort or insufficient investments in minority communities.

No my friends, it all about different interpretations of the use of a word.

What a joke this is, fueled by people who have unclear agendas.

Or is there a clear agenda…victimization?

The problem with the term 'articulate' is that we rarely see it used in reference to white guys


My god! Google the word “articulate” in conjunction with Clinton, Cuomo, Churchill etc. and prepare to spend hours following the links that are retrieved.

“Lorna Bingham of Des Moines said she was impressed by how articulate Clinton was. "I didn't realize she was such a good speaker.” -Washington Post

“Like Churchill, he is extremely intelligent and articulate. Like Churchill, he is a Christian. He is, of course, Newt Gingrich.” –The American Thinker


Posted by: Keith G | Feb 5, 2007 8:30:38 AM

Keith, high dudgeon isn't going to get you any further on a slender point - it's not that the "great American Civil Rights Movement has devolved" down to anything; this is just about black people relating another aspect of their experience. It's not that Biden's expression was "inarticulate" or "inartful", it's that, to many people, it reflected attitudes about minorities, and blacks in particular, that have never really been dealt with openly: a sense of lowered expectations, a prejudice about what constitutes being well spoken, hailing every new black person on the public stage as the niftiest thing since sliced bread because all those previous (formerly wonderful) black people didn't quite work out. I, too, think "eloquent" would have been more precise than "articulate", but mostly I think Joe Biden's day has passed, and this misstep, right on Day 1, underlines why he shouldn't even bother running. He does actually need to attract the black vote, not repel it.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 5, 2007 9:29:23 AM

How about the far more accurate (if wordy):
"He's a brilliant public speaker".

That's what he is. He's far more than articulate or eloquent, he's positively brilliant at speaking in public, far more brilliant than anyone in the current field, or probably anyone in quite awhile.

This is also a double edged sword, as Obama can deliver brilliant uplifting speeches that are about almost nothing. He can give a brilliant speech about health care and call for........ um..... a federal database of health records.

Posted by: isaac | Feb 5, 2007 9:37:41 AM

How about providing specific framing that cuts against the racial overtone, e.g., "Compared to, say, Joe Biden, Barack Obama is very articulate."

"clean" might work in that construction as well, although it then begins to sound like advertising copy, or a reference to "A Hard Day's Night."

Posted by: David | Feb 5, 2007 9:38:57 AM

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