Caroline, You Know


Caroline Kennedy has it all - brains and beauty, passion and poise, literacy and legacy. But if she is to succeed in politics she needs to acquire at least one more thing: the services of a good speech coach.

In an interview with two New York Times reporters over the weekend, Ms. Kennedy revealed a surprising dependence on the phrase "you know," employing it 140 times.

It's ironic that as politicians find themselves interviewed more frequently, with excerpts flashed across the Internet at warp speed, many seem poorly prepared for the basic requirements of public speaking.

President-elect Obama, perhaps the most impressive speaker to take the national stage in decades, battled a serious case of the "uhs" during campaign interviews. His rival, John McCain, had a different sort of quirky speech: he was seemingly unable to limit his use of the term "my friends" when on the stump.

Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, provided so much in the way of flawed speech that Tina Fey's parodies on "Saturday Night Live" practically wrote themselves. All Ms. Fey had to do was obtain transcripts and then drop the "g" at the end of most words - makin' her sound just like the governor from Alaska.

But for many of us, Caroline Kennedy is an enigma. We feel we've known her all her life, yet we don't really know what she sounds like. When the answer was provided in the Times' interview, it was a bit of a shock.

The Times released just under nine minutes of audio on its Web site, during which the would-be senator said "you know" 95 times - an average of once every six seconds. In the complete printed transcript, in which she spoke roughly 5,850 words, the phrase "you know" appears 140 times. For example:

"...I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know, I’ve been an education activist for the last six years here, and, you know, I’ve written seven books..."

In its original coverage on the Internet, The Times headline described Ms. Kennedy's interview performance as "eloquent," but later in the cycle it was changed to "forceful."

Ms. Kennedy's beloved father, the late president, had speech patterns worthy of parody - mostly relating to his New England roots, which had him tackling challenges with "viggah," or, as spoofed by comic Vaughn Meader in a discussion of bathtub toys, "the rubbah schwan (rubber swan) is mine."

But there's a fine line between endearing regionalisms and patter that seems to serve as a verbal crutch.

At least Ms. Kennedy used the more pedestrian "you know" rather than the currently fashionable but equally annoying "sort of."

Among the lessons Ms. Kennedy will undoubtedly learn as part of her crash course in modern politics is that almost everything spoken nowadays, even in a "print" interview, has the potential for rapid audio-visual distribution.

The Times reporters did not include the "you knows" in cleaned-up quotes in their printed news story, just as it would be unsavory to include the "uhs" when quoting Barack Obama - unless, of course, the objective was to cast the subject in an unflattering light, or if the point of the report was to examine how politicians speak in public.

Personally, I think Caroline Kennedy would be a fine choice to replace Hillary Clinton as senator from New York, and I hope Gov. David Paterson agrees. But Ms. Kennedy's speech needs polishing.

She must also understand that not all the news that's fit to print is necessarily, you know, fit to hear.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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