Sunday, September 9, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh's Shortcomings

Forgive me if I leave Justice Kavanaugh's judicial shortcomings to the experts. I'm a lawyer, but I've never even been through the metal detectors of a court of appeals, state or federal. I'll leave those criticisms to the specialists. No, today I will address Mr. Kavanaugh's shortcomings as a public speaker, one who makes his living in public. There is a very definite skill-set involved, and he doesn't seem to have mastered any of them.

I am qualified to speak about the physical skills that must be recognized, monitored, and studied by anyone who will be observed, photographed, and videoed by large numbers of people in the public setting. I've made over a thousand court appearances as a lawyer, and for the last ten years I have routinely taught classes of four hours duration with around one hundred students. Many of those classes were videoed for later use on my university's web site, and everyone has a camera handy now and loves to take photos. I never knew when they were taping a class, so I always assumed that they were. In court there was almost always a court reporter making a transcription of every word, and usually also every “ahhhhh,” and “ummmmm.” You had to be careful to compose your spoken sentences so that they could not be ridiculed later on. I considered the problems associated with this kind of life, and I came to some conclusions.

There are three major skills that must be considered by anyone who wishes to make a living in the public eye: 1) voice control; 2) gesture control; and 3) expression control.

Voice Control

Your voice is of paramount importance. Even on video, it is your voice that is carrying the informational element of your presentation. In any kind of public presentation, you cannot use the same voice that you use to talk to your mom on the phone, or when discussing just any old thing with your friend over a coffee.

All public speaking is an acting job. When it is your turn to speak, you must project with an almost Shakespearean volume of tone, like you were channeling Sir Laurence Olivier or something. You need it to cut through the ambient noise and register in the brains of people who are either distracted by something else or thinking mostly of what they are going to say when it is their turn. YOU MUST MAKE A VOICE. The “oh, shucks” tone does not work in public settings.

Has Mr. Kavanaugh been living up to this requirement? I am under strict doctors orders not to take in too much news these days, so I haven't heard enough to make specific criticisms. It is clear, however, that he does not pay enough attention to keeping his mouth shut until he has a sentence prepared that it worth saying at all, much less recording for posterity. There's a lot of stumbling going on, a lot of confusion being registered. This is just not cool. It's not professional, and it falls well short of the requirements for anyone who wishes to be considered talented at making public presentations.

Gesture Control

Gesture control is one that does not immediately seem important to most people, but really it is of critical importance. Think of President Trump (no matter how distasteful that may be). Recall his hand gestures while he is making his rambling, incoherent speeches. His hand movements are stiff and jerky. Often, they are silly, like when he seems to be tracking the movement of a bouncing ball across the air above his podium. Now picture the way he hunches his shoulders, or holds up one hand with his middle finger and thumb making a circle, waving it around for a while. Those are examples of someone who has never considered the requirements of proper communications.

Mr. Kavanaugh seems equally guilty of failing to understand the importance of gesture control, failing to study the science of it in order to get better at it, and failing dismally at avoiding embarrassing gestures in very important public appearances. Sitting in congress this week, he often seemed to be trying to cast some kind of Harry Potter spell with his fingers in weird, unnatural postures.

Please! I'm only a small time lawyer turned relatively unimportant university lecturer, and yet I've devoted more time and thought to these things than either the President of the United States or his nominee for appointment to the Supreme Court? That doesn't sound right, now does it?

Expression Control

Expression control is where Mr. Kavanaugh really fails spectacularly. He makes the weirdest damn faces, it's like he has Tourettes or something. Any little situation is enough to set his face muscles chasing off into the emotional distance. Someone wants to shake his hand? His face seeks simultaneously to display displeasure, fear, and rage. Even his relaxed smile is so desperate and unnatural that it more conveys the feeling of a forlorn hope that he is performing adequately. His facial muscles themselves seem to be working at cross purposes and against his best interests. He has this ability, when he purses his lips, to tense the muscles just in the very center of his lower lip so that they create two deep lines. I've never seen that one before. Pursing your lips in the first place is almost never a good idea, unless you are acting on a soap-opera. The photographs that appear in the news are uniformly awful. Virtually every still picture of him that I have seen has indicated that here is a person that has no idea that one's expression is something that one could, with a bit of practice, control. It's all so amateurish and silly.

So What?

I am a harsh critic of certain things. This just happens to be one of them. Serious people study these things, while I just try to be aware of them and monitor them carefully. My interest in improving my own performance makes me interested in observing the performance of others.

Of our recent presidents, Bill Clinton did a very good job in all three modalities while he was president, but by now his expression control is a bit sloppy. He almost looks medicated sometimes. Hillary, although not a president herself, has lived with the concept more than most people. She's not great at any of these three skills, and that failure cost her the very few votes that she would have needed to win. George W. Bush was a terrible public speaker, but he did have a certain hayseed-charisma that allowed him to get away with it most of the time. President Obama? Long time readers can guess where I'm going with this. President Obama had obviously considered these problems carefully, received some instruction, and practiced on video extensively. As a result, his speeches were usually clinics in how to monitor one's presentation. He is always in tight control of every aspect of his public persona. From his earliest appearance on the political scene, and continuing to this day, he has been a very good public speaker. 

This guy Kavanaugh will be raised to the Supreme Court any second now, owing mostly to the Black Flag nature of our politics these days. It's in the bag, mostly due to the sad fact that Americans have given up voting for some unknown reason. Then we'll be stuck with him for a good long time, unless they can figure out a way to impeach him. Nothing would surprise me anymore. It will be interesting, but not in a good way, to watch him immediately adopt Imperial Mannerisms as he sits on the Supreme Court bench, like he was Darth Stupidus or something. His votes, and his written decisions, will make Gorsuch look good, which may turn out to be the greatest accomplishment of Kavanaugh's life.

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