Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he nominated President Obama for re-election, has been hailed as a rhetorical tour de force. The press corps marveled at how Clinton used the prepared speech as a mere starting point, injecting his remarks with ad-libbed folksiness. The result was a speech that managed to elucidate wonky policy specifics in the homespun style of a Southern preacher.
While the result might have been overlong (Clinton has never been known to be terse), the way that Clinton transformed the speech that was on the teleprompter through improvisation makes for a great case study in political rhetoric. As noted by many commentators, several of Clinton's most memorable lines were delivered off-the-cuff, such as "You got to admit, it takes some brass to attack a guy for what you did" (countering what he felt was a hypocritical criticism from Paul Ryan on Medicare proposals). Or this line about debt reduction: "It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four. It's arithmetic." (Arithmetic was a major touchstone in the speech, allowing the "country boy from Arkansas" to launch into a litany of budget statistics.)
In fact, virtually every line in his speech was modified or expanded from the prepared text. This is dramatically demonstrated in Dashiell Bennett's analysis of the speech on The Atlantic Wire, which details every change that Clinton made. (Bennett notes that the White House had edited the speech for length, so some of Clinton's additions may have been simply reinstating what had been removed in the final draft.)
|Speech as prepared||Speech as given|
|I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995.||I had the same thing happen in 1994 and early '95.|
|Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn't feel it yet.||We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing. But most people didn't feel it yet.|
|By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.||Thankfully, by 1996 the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States.|
|President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did.||But — wait, wait. The difference this time is purely in the circumstances. President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did.|
|No president — not me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years.||Listen to me, now. No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.|
|But conditions are improving and if you'll renew the President's contract you will feel it.||Now — but — he has — he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president's contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.|
|I believe that with all my heart.||Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.|
|President Obama's approach embodies the values, the ideas, and the direction America must take to build a 21st-century version of the American Dream in a nation of shared opportunities, shared prosperity and shared responsibilities.||Now, why do I believe it? I'm fixing to tell you why. I believe it because President Obama's approach embodies the values, the ideas and the direction America has to take to build the 21st-century version of the American Dream: a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community.|
You can see that many of Clinton's ad-libs are interactions with the enthusiastic crowd ("Wait, wait..." "Listen to me, now..." "Folks..."). These interjections bring to mind the call-and-response preacherly style that has clearly left its mark on Clinton's oratory. Most remarkable is his transformation of one line, "I believe that with all my heart," into an impassioned plea, transitioning into his final point with a classic Clintonian pivot, "Now why do I believe it? I'm fixing to tell you why."
Fixing to (typically pronounced as fixin to) is a colloquialism as distinctly Southern as y'all. It has survived in non-standard, primarily rural, speech, but also works as a marker of authenticity and relatability for public figures raised in the South. On their Grammarphobia blog, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman present a brief history of fixing to in American English, which emerged in the mid-19th century with the meaning "preparing to" or "ready to." Unlike going to (or the colloquial version gonna), fixing to has a more immediate import, signaling an action that the speaker is about to do in the very near future.
Perhaps the immediacy of fixing to is why it works so well in Southern-inflected political discourse. Besides Clinton, George H.W. Bush, his son George W. Bush, and Al Gore have all used fixing to in public comments. Back in 1992, for instance, at the Republican National Convention in Houston, Bush the Elder answered the chant "Hit 'em again, hit 'em again, harder, harder" with "I'm fixin' to." And in the vice-presidential debate that year, when Dan Quayle accused Clinton of flip-flopping on term limits, Gore responded, "We're fixin' to limit one."
Bush the Younger used fixing to frequently but sometimes felt the need to explain it to Yankees. During the campaign for the New Hampshire primary in 2000, he was quoted as saying, "I'm fixin' to go to... uhhh. (Pause.) Do you use the word 'fixing' up here? (Pause.) Fixing." In a 2005 speech, he said, "Those of you who are fixin' to retire — that's Texan for getting ready to retire — have nothing to worry about."
Clinton didn't bother spelling out fixing to to his audience, but instead smoothly moved on to do what he was fixing to: make the case for Obama's re-election. Sure, the "country boy from Arkansas" persona might be a bit disingenuous for such a savvy political operator, but you have to admit that the man knows how to wield a folksy idiom.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer