Thursday, May 31, 2012

Power of Words

My university, Northeastern, is very fortunate to have Michael Dukakis on our faculty.  Governor Dukakis as I am sure readers recall was the democratic candidate for president in 1988.  He was unsuccessful, losing to George Bush Sr. but has been successful as a university professor and, in my opinion, was an effective governor in Massachusetts.

I've had an occasion to interview the governor for a book I wrote and I found his private persona very much akin to what my perception of him was as governor:  personable, intelligent, unpretentious, and clear.  An hour or so ago I saw him walking on campus and it was this sighting that spurred this post.

The election between Governor Dukakis and then Vice President George Bush was a close one.  As has become standard the campaign included debates between the candidates. In one, the governor said something that likely cost him the election.  Dukakis was an opponent of capital punishment.  The moderator's (Bernard Shaw) first question presented a scenario to the governor in which his wife had been brutalized.  Would the governor then, asked the moderator, be in favor of the death penalty.

Dukakis responded without hesitation. "No I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty my whole life."  The response seemed insensitive, as if Governor Dukakis did not care about his wife. It sounded as if he, in general, lacked empathy.

Many identified or self identified pundits believe that these words cost the Governor the election.  When I saw Dukakis earlier today, I thought about the episode and how a few words which he would have liked to change or utter differently changed not only his life, but an entire nation's history.  The following is irrespective of your political perspective, but consider that if Dukakis wins the election, he likely would have run in 1992 again which would mean that Bill Clinton would not have run. If Bush Sr. had not served at least the one term he had, would his son President George W. Bush, been nominated.  Again, regardless of your political orientation, our history would have been different.

A few words can have a powerful impact not only in politics.  I worked with a professor once who told me that letters he had written had changed his life.  Another professor, an administrator at my previous university, told me that the words uttered at speeches can have, and in his case, had in fact had, a significant effect on his professional life.

The effects, of course, transcend professional life in the same way that they transcend political history.  Words we said or did not say to sweethearts, letters written; words said in haste to family members and friends, can find us now embracing those we love or missing the nourishment of family and romantic love. I'm in the communication business so I am more sensitive to this than most, but it is not difficult for anyone to identify gains and losses that are based not on thoughts but on how these thoughts were expressed.  Daniel Webster is said to have said, "If all my possessions and powers were to be taken from me with one exception I would choose to keep the power of speech, for by it, I could soon recover all the rest."  And without that power we can lose a good deal of what is important to us.

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