Do Voices Give Candidates Presidential Timbre?

Teddy Roosevelt had a thin, reedy voice, yet he's credited with being a blustery, powerful speaker. In a later generation, Franklin Roosevelt's voice projected quiet confidence. How can vocal quality affect a presidential candidate's overall appeal?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the end of a clerical institution.

But first, this week, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wrangled over rhetoric. Do words matter, especially if they're somebody else's? But what about the candidates' voices? Might tone and register play a role in how a candidate is perceived, as well as the content of the message?

Frank Browning has this report on presidential voices, past and present.

FRANK BROWNING: The issues remain surprisingly similar, but the voices are different. Reedy Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed a progressive platform for change in 1912.

(Soundbite of archive recording)

President THEODORE ROOSEVELT: Our aim is to promote prosperity and then to see that prosperity is passed around.

BROWNING: 1931, somber Herbert Hoover called on the conscience of the nation.

(Soundbite of archive recording)

President HERBERT HOOVER: Modern society cannot survive with the defense of Cain: Am I my brother's keeper?

BROWNING: And in the depths of war, fatherly Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to explain the country's problems to its people.

(Soundbite of archive recording)

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Some call it inflation, which is a vague sort of term, and others call it a rise in the cost of living, which is much more easily understood by most families.

BROWNING: This year, says presidential speech historian Allan Metcalf, voters will have more access to hearing the full range of candidates' voices than ever before. One reason is YouTube.

Mr. ALLAN METCALF (Presidential Speech Historian): You can get their speeches, their interviews, and also in previous years, the presidential candidates would have a few selected debates. Now they debate all the time. They debate formally. They debate informally.

BROWNING: Result: We're all flooded with information through which we can judge a candidate's character through the richness, the resonance, the register, the warmth or the chill of each voice.

Dee Davis, publisher of the national rural Internet journal, Daily Yonder, says a candidate's voice has to communicate two things.

Mr. DEE DAVIS (Publisher, Daily Yonder): One, command authority; and two, show pity, show empathy to the people who are out there listening. Everything else is just details or nuance. Nobody's going to vote for a president if they don't hear that kind of I understand you, I get you, I feel your pain in the voice.

BROWNING: But what is it that generates that sense of common confidence that made Franklin Roosevelt sound reassuring while his elder cousin, Teddy, came across as bombastic?

Mr. LOTFI MANSOURI (General Director, San Francisco Opera): The fact is that the basic timbre is really a God-given sound.

BROWNING: Lotfi Mansouri has directed opera singers all over the world.

Mr. MANSOURI: Through technique and vocal study and all that, then you learn to have to control it and develop it, but you cannot manufacture timbre artificially.

BROWNING: Mansouri's colleague, Rick Harrell, directs the opera program at the San Francisco Conservatory.

Mr. RICHARD HARRELL (Director, Opera Program, San Francisco Conservatory): The old saying is the eye is the window of the soul. I think that the voice is the window into the heart. The voice and the sound of the voice, the sound of a baby's cry or the sound of someone saying please, I can do what's best for our country, it comes across at a very gut level, more so than I think at an intellectual level.

BROWNING: Mansouri and Harrell cite, for example, Frank Sinatra's voice, generally considered mediocre as a voice but still terribly moving.

Mr. MANSOURI: He was an distinctive singer, and his quality really stemmed from his phrasing. When you listen to him, you got the whole atmosphere of the song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) It's quarter to three. There's no one in the place except you and me…

Mr. HARRELL: All the real masters, be they speaker, actors or singers, the inflection, the tone, the music is immediately connected to and viscerally connected to communication.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) Make it one for my baby, one more for the road.

BROWNING: Which gets us to how the voices of this year's candidates resonate, which for the first time, obviously, include a woman, and that, says Florida political consultant Lynn Meyer(ph), carries a special charge.

Ms. LYNN MEYER (Political Consultant, Florida): There are two voices that don't seem very threatening. One is a little-girl voice, which is either Valley girl or even Jackie Kennedy's little tiny whisper; and the other is the Lauren Bacall very sexy voice. But between these two, I think that women have to be very careful that they don't sound like what I call the voice of civilization, the one who had said eat your spinach, take your elbows off the table, where's your homework, a voice that sort of sounds like a bit of mother or schoolteacher and, finally, wife.

BROWNING: Candidates are always auditioning for their next role in public life. Who, then, better to call than a theater director? Natasha Williams(ph), formerly a Russian linguist and translator, now directs the Balagula Theater in Lexington, Kentucky. First, she considers John McCain.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): They don't send us to Washington to take more of their money and waste it on things that add not an ounce to America's strength and prosperity.

Ms. NATASHA WILLIAMS (Director, Balagula Theatre): He sounds very human but unfortunately too human because he really sounds like an old man. He has a tremble in his voice, which makes him sound not strong and slightly irritated.

BROWNING: Then Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): It's what happens when the American worker doesn't have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment.

Ms. WILLIAMS: When he goes into cadences, he sounds very preachy. He sounds more like the charismatic leader but he doesn't sound like a diplomat or like a politician.

BROWNING: Finally, Hillary Clinton.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): To save hardworking Americans' homes from foreclosure at the abusive practices of the mortgage companies, we have a lot of work to do. And I know that…

Ms. WILLIAMS: Hillary loses when she gets excited but it comes across as angry. And when the mother is upset in the house, kids feel insecure. It's not like that with the father because mother always stands between the kids and the father. But when mother loses it, then it's really scary.

BROWNING: There was a time, Natasha Williams says, when you would only cast an educated, authoritative, statesmanly voice as president but now that's changed. People today seem to prefer a kind of plainspoken candidate, not just in this country.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, after the revolution, Russians were electing people based on Lenin's idea that a housewife could run the country. So we wanted workers and peasants there. We wanted them to sound like workers and peasants, look like workers and peasants, so that we felt that we run the country.

BROWNING: So now whether it's for the Kremlin or the White House, voters seem to be heading for a voice that might be the husband or the housewife next door.

For NPR News, this is the voice of Frank Browning.

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