The voice choice

Take a break from worrying about who's up to the job and ask yourself, who can you stand to listen to for the next four years?
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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate, as seen during a viewing at a San Francisco theater.

Take a break from worrying about who's up to the job and ask yourself, who can you stand to listen to for the next four years?

After getting caught the first time at a debate party where everyone actually watched the debate, and succumbing to the temptation to turn on the radio midway during the second, I tried my best to avoid the third. We headed to Tutta Bella, Columbia City’s fine pizzeria, a place that, as best I could recall, did not have a television.

But Tutta Bella has a bar, and every bar has a TV, and every barroom set, certain sports bars aside, was tuned to the debate. I couldn’t see it, but I heard it — or half of it. The Romney half. Obama’s voice — rounder than Romney’s, but also more hollow and muffled — was lost in the ambient hum. Romney’s cut through like a jagged knife or a hiss on a still lake at midnight.

When I gave up resisting and stepped over to the bar, I was surprised to discover that Obama was speaking forcefully and had claimed more air time than Romney; as far as I knew, only Romney had been talking. And I realized there was one more reason I could never, ever vote for Mittens.

I’ll admit it’s the most superficial, subjective, and unfair reason of all. But it cannot be denied. It’s his voice. I can’t stand the idea of listening to it for four, let alone (God forbid) eight years.

Presidential voices may all start to wear for anyone who consumes broadcast media — especially those who listen to NPR, which seems particularly fond of banal presidential soundbites. But some wear more than others. The easiest to bear are the most easily caricatured, which have redeeming comic qualities: Kennedy’s nasal Bostonisms, Nixon’s dark rumblings, George H.W. Bush’s whingeing, Johnson’s and Carter’s drawls — and, of course, Clinton’s, the folksiest drawl by far and by design. (Context counts; I winced the gazillionth time Clinton as president declaimed “That is wro-ong,” but thrilled along with everyone else at his recent convention keynote.)

Millions, I know, found Reagan’s honeyed baritone irresistibly soothing; my brother still swoons when he recalls listening to Dutch. I was mostly immune to that magic. But I had plenty company when I found George W. Bush’s snarling drawl unbearable long before his tenure was up.

And then there’s Romney’s voice. It has many of the same qualities as Reagan’s: the low timbre, the rich, gravelly texture, the unctuous warmth. But there’s a bit of Bush Senior in it too — a hint of whingeing and unpersuasive straining to sound tough. It’s a salesman’s voice, like Reagan’s, but with an insistent, almost desperate edge. With the right pulsing musical accompaniment, it could be a voiceover from a Hollywood movie trailer. Romney has Reagan’s smarm without his charm.

Audiology may sometimes be a proxy for ideology: You pin your disagreements with the things a candidate says on the way he or she says them. I admit that the voices that grate most on me tend to be on the right. But it’s not always that way. You may know voters who tend to agree with Jay Inslee and mistrust Rob McKenna, who want to cheer when Inslee speaks — but find themselves unnerved by McKenna’s more impressive articulation. You may be one yourself.

Yes, voice is a terribly shallow basis for a presidential choice. But with both candidates last night saying they’d pretty much do what the other guy would do, even though the other guy was wrong, wrong, wrong, they didn’t give us much more to go on. And it’s fairer and more pertinent to ask “Who would you rather listen to?” than “Who would you rather have a beer with?” Romney and, as far as we know, Dubyah don’t drink beer. Even if they did, we wouldn’t be sitting down for a frostie with them. But we will (and have) had to hear their voices.

So ask yourself as you step into the figurative voting booth: Can I stand to hear this guy for four more years?

Whoops. Sorry, Mr. Inslee.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.