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Comparing the speaking styles of Clinton and Trump — and what it reveals about their minds

REUTERS/Jason Miczek
Kathleen Hall Jamieson: Hillary Clinton prefers to work out what she is going to say in advance, then stick to the script.

Hillary Clinton is wary and cautious, communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson says. She uses language with very specific meaning. She’s not comfortable in open press conferences or interviews. She hasn’t been very accessible to the press. This may be unhelpful to her as a candidate, but what does it tell us, as voters, about the kinds of “habits of mind” she would bring to the job of the presidency if she gets elected?

Clinton prefers to work out what she is going to say in advance, then stick to the script, Jamieson said, often by reading it off a teleprompter. Once she has settled on words or phrases that capture what she intends to communicate, she sticks to those phrases, perhaps aware that an incautious word may send the wrong signal and may have consequences — political consequences or even substantive consequences — when said by a president or a secretary of state.

Donald Trump is impulsive, bordering on reckless. “There is very little filter between thought and verbalization,” says Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center on Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s not careful about what comes out of his mouth. His language is not carefully constructed. He’ll say something, then say the opposite, then complain that the media reported his remarks wrong, or that it’s a sign of bias to quote him saying things that he didn’t mean to say, or wishes he hadn’t said, or subsequently contradicted. “Look at how often he has to tell us that he didn’t mean what we heard him say,” Jamieson said.

Again, these qualities may bring pluses and minuses to Trump in his quest to become president. But, Jamieson suggests, if each of us is willing to take our job as a voter seriously, we need to ask ourselves not which of the candidates is more fun to listen to but which of them has demonstrated the best “habits of mind” to do the serious and important job of chief executive and commander-in-chief.

Jamieson, a Minneapolis native and long-time analyst of political communication, will speak Thursday at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis as part of that church’s long-running Town Hall public forum series. Her title is: “Campaign-Speak: What the Candidates Are Really Saying.” MinnPost is a co-sponsor of the event.

Jamieson, who has been helping me decode political communications for more decades than either of us cares to remember, kindly gave me a preview of her thinking on the topic, starting out with a surprise, to me at least, which I have already telegraphed above.

How candidates use language

From the title of the talk, I assumed that she would be discussing the kind of “dog whistles” that candidates often use to communicate different messages to different audiences. But Jamieson is really arguing that a candidate’s speaking style also tells us important things about what kind of president he or she would make.

By what they say and the way they use language, Jamieson says, the candidates are not only describing their lifetime of accomplishments and their positions on various issues (which are, of course, perfectly valid considerations that might feed into one’s voting decision), but in addition:

“The candidates are telling us what the habits of mind they will bring to the presidency. They’re telling us what their temperamental dispositions are to act. And they’re telling us what skill sets they bring to unanticipated circumstances, in which we will have to trust their skill sets because we can’t be certain what those circumstances will be. There is additional information in the candidate’s discourse that is highly revelatory and that we ought to pay attention to because it factors into their ability to govern.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Speaking in public is not just something you have to do to become president, it’s also something that you have to do as president and it’s a very important part of the job, Jamieson said. What the POTUS says, the whole world hears, and there can be consequences to a president sending the wrong messages because they are sloppy communicators, or to use the other phrase Jamieson employed, because they exhibit poor “habits of mind.” Said Jamieson:

“As president, one of the capacities a president has is a signaling capacity. This is a capacity that lets the president say to foreign leaders: ‘If you do this, you can expect that we will do that.’ The signal capacity has to be very clear from a president. If it’s not, foreign leaders may misjudge our intent. When a candidate signals in an incoherent way, that candidate signals the possibility that, if elected, that person will not be able to exercise the signaling capacity in a competent fashion.

“So, when for example, a presidential candidate suggests, as Donald Trump had done, that the United States is open to the nuclearization of some other countries, different from what other presidents have done, that person is signaling a change in the pre-existing boundaries on the issue of nuclearization.

“If other countries take that seriously, they act in a certain way. If you then say: ‘No, I never said that…’ Well, in fact, they heard you saying it. You’ve now got confused signals.

“Hillary Clinton’s cautious and precise use of language leads you to think that she will signal carefully. Trump’s impulsivity — his lack of precision in his use of language, his frequent changes in position or instances in which he claims you misunderstood or that he did not mean what he said the first time, leads us to believe that he will not use the signaling capacity with the same level of competence as past presidents have. This is not about the quality of the positions a candidate takes. It speaks to their ability to use the rhetorical capacity of the office.”

Trump’s ‘impulsivity’

Jamieson also criticized Trump for what she called his “impulsivity,” his tendency to speak off the cuff and sometimes take positions in response to a question that he hasn’t thought through. The example she gave was when Trump was asked on live TV whether, if abortions were illegal, women who underwent abortions would have to be “punished.” To all appearances, Trump had never thought this question through, but he decided to follow the logic if there’s a law and you break it, there have to be consequences. So he said yes, the women would have to punished, a position he later seemed to regret. Perhaps a less impulsive candidate would have postponed answering until he had had time to work the question through.  

She talked about a famous incident during the Cuban missile crisis, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent two conflicting messages to Washington, one belligerent and one leaving open a greater possibility for a peaceful end to the crisis. President John F. Kennedy decided not to respond to the belligerent message but only to the more promising peaceful one, and that was a key moment in defusing the closest the two superpowers ever came to a nuclear exchange.

Without mentioning Trump by name directly in that context, she said:

“A candidate who, when attacked, feels the need to immediately and viscerally counterattack, raises the possibility that in a similar moment between two countries, he will lack the wisdom and judgment to say: ‘I’m going to ignore that.’”

Clinton’s Iraq War failure

But Jamieson also cited an important matter when Clinton failed to portray a proper mental process.

“Many habits of mind matter,” Jamieson said. “Here’s a concern I have about Hillary Clinton along those lines:

“Why, before she voted for the [2003] Iraq intervention, did she not go to the Pentagon and review all of the documents that were available there about whether or not Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ so-called and largely undefined, before she voted for the Iraq intervention? We know she now says it was a mistake. What was the mistake? I think the mistake was not looking to the evidence.

“Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who was largely ridiculed out of the contest for the presidency, did in fact go look at the evidence, did in fact conclude that there were no WMD there, and did in fact vote against the Iraq War. He was in fact correct. He had a habit of mind that made him go read the evidence. What is the habit of mind that led Hillary Clinton not to do the same thing?”

If you can’t make the Jamieson talk, Thursday night at 7 p.m., MPR tells me the network will broadcast a tape of it twice on Friday, at noon and 9 p.m.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/23/2016 - 09:47 am.

    Con men

    are never precise.
    They let people think they hear what they want to hear.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/23/2016 - 10:41 am.

    I’ve dealt with people like Trump before.

    Their talk creates a blizzards of words, thoughts and positions. Whatever it takes to close the deal and create the maximum advantage for them.

    It’s not enough to make money, it’s the joy that comes from making money while making the other person lose in some way.

    Get it in writing, read the contract, make sure that commitments are understood and followed through with along the way.

    A half dozen years ago, I had experience with a developer in town who also worked with the “Trump discount” approach–at the end of the project, all of the contractors were gathered for an “important meeting”. A lawyer came to the front of the room and said they would be paying up to 80% of the contract amount in the next day or so, but if you wanted the full amount they would pay nothing now and you could sue the for the full amount, and you might see your money in 5 or 6 years. The guy next to me said something to the effect of, “dammit, that’s the second time he’s done that to me.” I thought to myself, “that’s the first and only time he’s going to do that to me.” An expensive lesson, but a valuable lesson in knowing the character of who you are working with.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/23/2016 - 11:24 am.

    My 2¢

    I think Paul Brandon is correct – snake-oil salesmen of whatever historical era have relied on similar tactics for a very long time. It also occurs to me – this is a point I’ve yet to see examined in the ongoing discussion of candidates – that one of the reasons Ms. Clinton may be a “cautious” speaker, beyond her previous official and public duties as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, is that she has been under near-constant attack by right-wing ideologues for much of her adult life.

    Trump can speak without thinking, and the consequences, if they’re negative, don’t hurt him all that much. As a private citizen, he can retreat into that role, count his money, and wait for the controversy to fade. Clinton has seldom had that luxury. She’s had positions of real responsibility, where word choices could genuinely affect the lives of many others, but even when not in office herself, her husband has often been in office, and the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” many of us were inclined to dismiss upon first hearing the phrase, but which turned out to be just as advertised, could – and did – pillory her for every minor misstep, deserved or not. Trump has not had to live under that sort of microscopic public inspection. His early performances in that media fishbowl have not been encouraging.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/23/2016 - 11:56 am.


    Never been a big fan of the signal theory of international diplomacy. The problem is, we are dealing with people who are not Americans, not immersed in American politics, and who often don’t speak English. They tend to do what we tend to do, hear what they want to hear, and discard the rest.

    I think of this in Saddam Hussein terms. We sent him all sorts of messages, some implied, some express. We signaled the heck out of the guy. Surely the massive military build up on his border prior to the invasion of his country should have told him something. Yet these signals went ignored, and among the reasons for that is that he saw other signals that he liked more, that were more consonant with his world view. Like many tyrants, I think he saw President Bush as weak. And why not? When did Mr. Bush ever imprison an opposition leader? Why was his political opponents Al Gore allowed to retire peacefully, instead of spending years in a jail cell? Why was Harry Reid allowed to speak freely on Meet the Press? To a tyrant, Mr. Bush’s inexplicable failure to grind his opposition into dust sent a political message of weakness, no State Department communique, or unread op ed piece in the New York Times, which by the way was allowed to publish throughout the Bush years relatively free of censorship, could ever rectify.

  5. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 06/23/2016 - 03:55 pm.

    That some international tyrants decide not to pay attention to signals from the United States President or State Department diplomats does not obviate the need for our President and her administration to send absolutely clear signals to them, and to the world.

    Trump is incapable of sending any clear message when he speaks. As Professor Jamiesen nicely points out. Trump also is all over the place about what he thought–if he put any real thought in it at all–about the Iraq War in 2003. We can criticize Hillary Clinton if we want for not spending a few hours reading through Bush II’s documentation of Iraq WMDs; I guess she didn’t distrust enough the then-sitting President Bush. But we know two things: we know how she voted and we know that she has admitted and apologized again and again for voting for that war. No comparison: Hillary Clinton shows presidential caliber, Trump does not.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/24/2016 - 06:20 am.

    That some international tyrants decide not to pay attention to signals from the United States President or State Department diplomats does not obviate the need for our President and her administration to send absolutely clear signals to them, and to the world.

    People pay attention to the United States. Indeed the rest of the world is far more focused on the United States, than we are on them, to their great irritation. When’s the last time you watched a Syrian police procedural on TV? But that means we “signal” them in all sorts of ways that are simply out of our control. And as with any form of communication, they see what they want to see. Saddam read the signals and thought we weren’t going to invade, and that turned out to be wrong.

    To me, as someone who has followed her career for decades, Hillary is a very irritating person. She tends to brush aside the importance of skill she doesn’t have to the extent she needs them. She is a poor communicator, but also she doesn’t seem to understand how and why she communicates poorly and doesn’t seem to put in the effort to get better. She talks like a lawyer, oblivious to the fact that people hate lawyers. She insists on signalling when people literally crave clarity of thought and language. She shouts into a microphone as if she were a WCCO rookie covering the Twin Cities marathon for the first time. And she and her supporters and her enablers try to cover these faults by claiming that any attempt to raise these issues is an instance of sexism. The result is a match up between a good communicator and a bad communicator, in an arena where the ability to communicate is, if not everything, quite a lot, a very disturbing matchup indeed.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/24/2016 - 07:05 am.

    “Hillary Clinton’s cautious and precise use of language leads you to think that she will signal carefully.”

    Hillary’s use of caution and precision in language over the decades of her public service is why many people regard her as dishonest. She simply does not tell you what she thinks. She frames her language cautiously and precisely in ways that are bet calculated to yield advantage, mostly short term advantage at the expense of the long term.

    Hillary has been around for a long, long, time, and she wears us out. For many decades now, we have known that whenever she gets in a scrape, the cautious and precise language gets rolled out, the language that all of us know bears only the most tangential relationship to anything the rest of us could identify as true. I am a yellow dog Democrat. I will vote for Hillary this fall, and I do believe she has many fine qualities. But I will say, whenever I hear Hillary trotting out her finely crafted legalisms, ever so cautiously and precisely eluding uncomfortable truths, I fully understand why so much of the nation is crying out for the clarity of Donald Trump.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/24/2016 - 09:51 am.

    .the clarity of Donald Trump” What in the world are you talking about

    He wants to build a wall, and make Mexico pay for it. Seems clear enough to me. I won’t repeat the more racist stuff he says, but say what you will, his meaning is clear. Of course, Trump isn’t always clear; the gobbledygook he is issuing this morning from his golf course in Scotland provides numerous examples, but his position on Brexit, and apparent total lack of understanding of UK politics doesn’t really matter much here. Nobody is voting for Donald on the theory that he is some sort of rocket scientist.

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