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The Truth, Mainly - 03/11/1996

Third Personese: Kansas talk, Bozo talk or political talk?

A lot of people have been making fun of Bob Dole for speaking third personese.

You know, when he says things like, "You're gonna see the real Bob Dole out there from now on," or "Bob Dole doesn't back down from a fight," or "Bob Dole has this look because on his face because he just ate a greasy Polish sausage to show that Bob Dole's no effete Washington insider."

But I'm not going to make fun of him for talking like that. I'm from Kansas too. And in Kansas, I remember, it's bad taste to talk about yourself in first person.

"Never use 'I' or 'me' in your essays," our high school teachers told us. "People will think you're stuck on yourself."

And God knows we didn't want anyone to think that. We all remembered the same of one hometown boy who was stuck on himself. When he learned he'd made honorable mention on the All-Meade County football team, Billy Bob Busbee should have dug his toe in the dirt and said "Aw shucks." But instead he said, "I knew I was good, but I didn't know I was that good."

We were shocked. Even horrified. It couldn't have been much worse if we'd caught him patting his hair and making goo-goo eyes in the restroom mirror.

How much better it would have been had he said "Billy Bob knew he was good, but Billy Bob didn't know he was that good."

So anyway, I've always thought Bob Dole was avoiding first-person pronouns so Kansans wouldn't think he was stuck on himself. And I've admired him for it. I've even tried to emulate him.

For example, when it's my turn to clean up the doggy rolls in the yard, my wife might say something like "Hey, Bozo, it's your turn to clean up the doggy rolls."

"Leon Satterfield," I intone from under the Sunday paper as I recline on the couch, "is thinking ethereal thoughts. Leon Satterfield can't be bothered by doggy rolls just now. Besides, spring is coming and this great compost pile we call Earth will soon work its regenerative magic and turn doggy rolls into pure organic fertilizer. Earth, Walt Whitman says, 'grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,' 'distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor.' Leon Satterfield only has to play the waiting game."

"Leon Satterfield," she replies, "had best haul his Kansas posterior off the couch before the little woman does something decidedly unpleasant involving a pair of pinking shears."

She knows I have never liked pinking shears.

"Leon Satterfield," I say, "will take that under advisement."

"And if Leon Satterfield doesn't quit referring to himself in third person," she says, "he may soon wonder why the sports page is sticking out of his left nostril."

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And so on.

When I try to explain to her that I talk that way because Bob Dole and I are from Kansas and Kansans don't like first person pronouns, she snorts.

"I'm from Kansas too," she says, "and I don't talk that way. You talk that way because you're a Bozo. Bob Dole talks that way because he's a politician."

"We just don't want to sound stuck on ourselves," I say.

"So you repeat your own name over and over?" she says. "You sound like a broken record on an ego trip. At least with Dole, it's an occupational disease."

"Hah?" I say.

"His occupation is politician," she says. "Politicians by definition are never sure who they are because they're defined only by how voters see them. They have no other identity, no first-person selves. He says 'Bob Dole' instead of 'I' so he won't forget his name."

"Hah?" I say.

"Bob Dole's not the only one," she says. "It's Bill Clinton too, and any other politician who has to see which way the wind's blowing before he knows what he thinks. And then he falls all over himself trying to show he's not contradicting what he said yesterday. Politicians need to have the ovarian fortitude Walt Whitman had when he said in first person 'Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.'"

"No fair," I say. "Walt Whitman is my source. What's ovarian fortitude?"

"That's why politicians talk in third person," she says, as if I'm not even there. "It's a whole lot easier to say 'You're gonna see the real Bob Dole out there from now on' than it is to say 'I'm gonna change from one fabricated personality to another fabricated personality to get more votes."

She's pretty excited. And knowing better than to interrupt when the little woman's pretty excited, Leon Satterfield hauls his lazy Bozo third-person Kansas posterior out in the yard to clean up the doggy rolls.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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