So what do you think Yankees should talk like when they come to Texas? Does it do them any good to try to talk like Texans? No, I didn't think so either. Especially when they're Hillary Clinton.
If we know anything at all in Dallas, it's about Yankees. This is the only Texas city I know where individual suburbs have their own accents. Plano and Garland are right next to each other, but anybody can tell a Plano accent from a Garland accent.
Garland is Texas, right? Plano is Yankee. Don't argue with me about this, OK? You know it's true.
I came up the hard way. I'm a Yankee. I came here 100 years ago from Detroit. My first night out I got in a big yelling match with a guy behind the counter at Arlington Stadium because I thought the idiot was asking if I wanted the local newspapers with my nachos. Now I know. "Papers" means jalapeños. Plus, I learned that people here take the word "idiot" personally. Who knew?
So here's my dilemma. I love Hillary Clinton. I just want her to be president in the worst way, partly because of what a slap-down it would be for most of my neighbors. I want her to be viable.
But last week when I was on my Exercycle watching her give a speech at the Ann Richards memorial service in Austin, I had to turn off my TV at least four times. Hillary was doing something that just shouldn't be done. It must not be done. It cannot be done.
She was trying to talk Texas.
At first I tried to tell myself it was only that Upper Midwest just-plain-folks thing where you drop your terminal G's to show that you don't think you're superior to the people you think you're superior to.
She opened her remarks: "I was lookin'(no g) at those pictures, and I was thinkin'(no g), some people are so afraid of dyin'(no g) they never live, and some people are so afraid of failing (with a g) they never try."
I was concerned at this point, because...well, first of all we're doing this whole kind of lyrical country-western thing about, "So afraid of dyin', your eyes was lyin', who's buyin'?" all that.
But worse, we're only one long sentence into it, and already we've let three dropped G's hit the floor like horseshoes. And then Hillary dropped the g-bomb. I nearly fell off my Exercycle. Well, that happens sometimes anyway when I get going too fast, but I can tell you I was genuinely shocked by what I heard her say next. She was talking about how Ann Richards used to talk to women:
"She'd tell 'em they could," Hillary said. "In fact they had to. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. You had to git up and git goin' and just believe in yourself."
She said "git." I'm sorry. You can't say "git" if you're a Yankee. "Git" is Texas property. Yankees do not say "git." Ever. The only reason for Hillary Clinton to say "git" is if she's trying to do a Texas accent or a country accent or some kind of down-home thing, the very thought of which makes me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer to make it go away.
Of course, what the hell do I know about presidential candidates? I cover zoning controversies and PTA hair-pulling fights. But I must tell you, I have done some research that has only ratcheted up my sense of unease over my most favored candidate for the highest office in the land.
It turns out Southern accents are an issue. All kinds of bloggists, pundits and other whiz-bangs have been writing about how no Democrat who does not have a Southern accent can get elected president. This maxim seems to have originated with Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institute, who wrote an article a year ago in which he said, "No Democratic presidential candidate has been elected without a Southern accent in the half-century since 1960."
Hanson is greatly admired by conservative writers who have called him "potential heir to Stephen Ambrose as America's laureate of military history." He is not admired by liberal writers, who have called him "bard of the booboisie" and "the worst historian since Parson Weems."
But the point is, three months after Hanson said a Democrat has to have a Southern accent to win election, a writer in New York magazine repeated it as accepted wisdom. And there you have it. Now all the smart people are talking about it. One writer recently even said pointedly that Hillary Clinton would be wise to "get a Southern accent."
Get a Southern accent? What? You don't get a Southern accent. You especially don't git a Texas accent.
A few years ago, Dianne Markley at the University of North Texas did a study of job applicants in Texas and the effect that a regional accent may have on hiring decisions. She came up with a number of interesting findings, but the issue I talked to her about last week was Yankees who try to talk Texas.
She said basically it's bad. And nobody really ever gets away with it.
"It's a pretty universal reaction," she said. "If you live and work among the people in a region and assimilate that accent, that is acceptable. If you come in from the outside and try to fake it, that is quite negative."
Markley didn't mean just in Texas, and she wasn't talking about Hillary. She meant people everywhere.
"A native speaker can pick up on a non-native accent within syllables," she said. "And pretty universally people don't like it when others try to fake it."
This thing wouldn't bother me so much if I already didn't like Hillary. But I do. I watch her on TV whenever she's on. I went back on the Internet and found a show I saw a couple weeks ago that Hillary did with Cynthia McFadden, co-anchor of Nightline on ABC. They were in Upstate New York. Most of the show was sit-down one-on-one blah-blah between the two women, but a few shots were sandwiched in between of Hillary out on the campaign trail meeting real people.
"Do you live nearby?" I heard her ask a lady.
Mmm, straight-up Yankee talk so far, if you ask me.
McFadden asked her if she felt she had made a mistake by voting for the war in Iraq.
"I can only look at what I knew at the time," Hillary said. "I don't think you get do-overs in life. I think you have to take responsibility and hopefully learn from it and go forward. I regret very much the way the president misused the authority he was given."
So, even in Yankee talk...was that a yes? Or a no?
I talked to Ray Strother, whose Washington firm, Strother-Duffy-Strother, describes itself as America's "oldest Democratic political media and message firm." I'm so out of it here in Dallas, I'm not even sure what a Democratic political media and message firm is, but I called Strother because he has been quoted on the subject of national politics and regional accents.
Strother was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1940. He's a Democrat, obviously. But he was tough on her. And he hadn't seen the speech. He was just taking my word for it.
"What she was doing was condescending," he said. "I've seen people do that, particularly politicians who go to a black church and pick up the rhythms of the black preacher. Yet the people in the audience are saying, 'What is going on, white guys don't talk like that.'
"For her to come down, come out of Washington, because they see her on television all the time, and affect an Ann Richards-type persona is condescending and can do a great deal more harm than good.
"That's the kind of mistake that shows her political insensitivity. Essentially, when she thinks she's being sensitive she's being insensitive."
Wow. See. The Texas thing trumps even the Democrat thing.
To get outside of Texas, I called Ashley Higgins, an attorney in Helena, Arkansas. Higgins was a sometime Clinton watcher when the Clintons were in Little Rock, and he is a generally wise observer of the world who has helped me cut through to the heart of complex issues in the past. I explained my dilemma: that I am a Hillary-lover and that I was perplexed and worried about her attempt to do a country Texas kind of an accent thing at what was essentially a funeral in Austin.
Higgins listened to me patiently. Then he told me that by focusing on superficialities such as accent I was really missing the important inner truth of the situation:
"There was a real nice guy running against Bill for governor," Higgins said. "I forget what his name was. Tall, kind of stoop-shouldered guy. He was doing a little news conference in the state capitol. And probably he wasn't saying anything particularly nice about Bill, but this guy was so nice he couldn't say anything particularly not nice about Bill.
"Hillary came up and chewed him out at his own damn press conference. And I thought, 'Shit, that girl's a Yankee! Damn!'"
I married a Texan. I don't try to talk like her. I don't even try to understand her all the time. I just remember what I learned in the "papers" incident out at the ballpark. Look like you're glad to be here and say yes.
Or no. That's another good answer. Let me go back and listen to that McFadden thing again. Maybe Higgins is right. Maybe this is more than just the accent.
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