Kilgore speaks on Kilgore speaking.

I’ve long been interested in the topic of Jerry Kilgore’s voice. Late last year, some media expressed a great reluctance to acknowledge the elephant in the Kilgore campaign’s living room — the man has a stereotypically effeminate voice. Now to be fair, there’s not a thing that he can do about it, no more than if he was born without a nose or had turned blue. Nor is there, I imagine, any reason why having a high-pitched, soft, nasal voice should keep him from serving as governor effectively. That said, it’s going to have an impact on who votes for him, because many voters will hear him speak and perceive him to be weak, unfairly or not.

The media’s discomfort with this topic started to thaw in December. On the 10th, the Hampton Roads Daily Press described him as leaving “the appearance of being a little, well, French.” And it was just three days later that the Staunton News Leader referred to “the ‘Ned Flanders meets Mr. Rogers’ whine that passes for Kilgore’s voice.” The big sea change, though, came in the Washington Post‘s January 2 article, which was all about how Kilgore is perceived as being weak. Gordon Morse wrote:

Kilgore is perfectly capable of cooking up a plate to satisfy the Republican red-meat eaters: state-sanctioned prayer, lower taxes, more executions. But when he emerges from the kitchen for a personal appearance, the effect dissipates. Think of a Tennessee version of Mr. Rogers.

Virginia Republicans generally have leaned toward exuberant militants such as now Sen. George Allen and former governor James S. Gilmore. They like the unambiguous point of view, the swagger, the readiness to mix it up and dish it out. In Kilgore, they get more diffidence than defiance. Kilgore is game, but someone must hand him the right script.

Kilgore and Kaine have twice appeared together in Richmond before an annual gathering of Associated Press editors and reporters. In both instances, Kaine was the cagey aggressor and Kilgore the befuddled victim.

That’s really, truly harsh, though fair, in that it’s deadly accurate.

All of this is by way of introduction to Jerry Kilgore’s appearance on WTOP’s “The Politics Program with Mark Plotkin” yesterday. One of the opening questions was entirely about his accent. The show’s co-host, who asked the question, was obviously a little uncomfortable with using a word like “effeminate,” so instead referred only to “accent.” (If his question were really only about Kilgore’s Southwest Virginia accent, then he wouldn’t have described the question as being an uncomfortable one.) Here’s the transcript:

Q: Let me ask another question that I’m sure maybe some people are…uh…maybe hesitant to ask, and then Hank will get a chance to speak. [laughter] I talked to the renowned political expert in Virginia and that’s Larry Sabato — Dr. Larry Sabato — the former millionaire who gave to the University of Virginia and he said “ask him about the accent,” and he was serious about this. He was saying that a southwestern, rural, countrified, will turn people off in northern Virginia and thus you’re going to lose votes. Why don’t you meet that issue head-on?

A: I think it’s a defining issue. It defines who I am. I learned very early on in my political career — never try to be somebody you’re not. I’m gonna travel around Virginia, I’ll be speaking in this same accent. I think people are just looking for leadership, they’re looking for good ideas, and I’m going to bring leadership and the good ideas to the table, and I’ll bring them with the accent I was born with.

Be sure to

      listen to the MP3
— it’s so much funnier in his voice.

So, it defines who he is, he doesn’t want to pretend to be somebody that he’s not, and this how he was born.

Um. We are talking about accents here, are we?

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

6 replies on “Kilgore speaks on Kilgore speaking.”

  1. Yes, it would be bad political strategy to skip radio interviews altogether, but after hearing that I’m still surprised his campaign agrees to any. Wow.

  2. This is the first time I’ve heard him. First impression: Al Franken’s “Stuart Smalley.”

    Is Kilgore a caring nurturer?

  3. Al Gore has a lot of the same speech characteristics — and I’m not talking about regional accent. He’s got the unexpectedly-high pitch, the wide-ranging modulation (excessive differentiation between soft and loud syllables), the hint of a lisp.

    Years ago (well, it was 1976) when I was studying linguistics, socio-linguist William Labov mentioned to our class that someone should do a thesis on the speech of male homosexuals, then added that the subject was so politically charged that no one would dare to do it.

    Which makes me wonder whether such a study has been done in the ensuing 29 years. (The 3rd rail of linguistics?!) What would be particularly interesting is the effect such speech patterns have on men (candidates for office, especially) who have these speech patterns, but who are not gay.

    All through the Gore/Bush campaign, I kept thinking: Where is Henry Higgins when you need him?

  4. You’re absolutely right. Partisanship, I suspect, played a role in keeping me from noticing that. Gore was widely perceived as “weak,” and I don’t doubt that played an important role in that perception.

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