Wednesday, December 31, 2008

NEW YORK | If Caroline Kennedy had, you know, only known.

Tracking the would-be New York senator’s verbal tics has become a political parlor game in the days since she gave her first round of in-depth interviews, even spawning a hip-hop-style mash-up online blending her “you knows” with President-elect Barack Obama’s “uhs.”

Such conversational fillers are, of course, as common as, like, speech itself. But the buzz about Ms. Kennedy’s “you knows” illustrates how problematic a few extraneous syllables can be for a public figure, especially in an era when today’s verbal foible is tomorrow’s viral video.

“It really did a huge disservice to her,” said communications training coach Matt Eventoff, a partner in Princeton Public Speaking in Princeton, N.J. Rather than focusing on Ms. Kennedy’s views, he said, “people are going to spend time deconstructing the ‘you knows.’”

Deconstruct they have, in newsprint, blogs and YouTube, where the “Kennedy Obama UmYouKnow Remix” can be found alongside “The More You Know: Caroline Kennedy.” The latter counts - with a buzzer - 30 “you knows” in 147 seconds of excerpts from an interview with the Associated Press.

Bloggers have torn into President John F. Kennedy’s Harvard- and Columbia-educated daughter for such remarks as: “You know, I think, really, um, this is sort of a unique moment, both in our, you know, in our country’s history and in, you know, my own life, and, um, you know, we are facing, you know, unbelievable challenges.”

The “you knows” have punctuated a rocky media rollout for the Democratic scion, who emerged from a lifetime of closely guarded privacy to seek appointment to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate seat. If Mrs. Clinton is confirmed as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, as expected, Democratic Gov. David Paterson will choose her successor.

Ms. Kennedy, 51, has never held public office and has faced questions about her preparedness for the U.S. Senate. She has pointed to her experience as a lawyer, education advocate and author of books on constitutional law and other subjects, as well as her family’s long history of public service.

A Kennedy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday but told the Daily News on Monday: “Caroline has acknowledged that she hasn’t mastered the art of the political sound bite, but if Gov. Paterson appoints her, she’ll fight her heart out to make sure New York families have their voices heard in Washington.”

Ms. Kennedy isn’t alone - even within her own family - in leaning on a conversational crutch. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, her uncle, and former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, her cousin, both have been dubbed the “Wizard of Uhs”; a Boston radio host has held contests in which callers would count the number of “uhs” in a clip of the senator speaking.

Former presidential candidate and ex-Sen. Bob Dole was noted for his “whatevers,” former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for his use of “obviously.” More recently, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s “my friends” became a staple of the campaign trail.

Such interjections often arise out of nervousness or a need to fill a bit of time while gathering thoughts, speech experts say. The tics often go unnoticed by both speaker and listener - up to a point.

In informal research, speaking coach Dennis Becker said he and others found that people listening to business presentations shrugged off two to three “ums,” “uhs” and the like per minute. But they started getting irked once the number crept up to five to seven.

Besides being distracting, these little locutions can make a speaker seem ill-prepared or unsure of his or her point.

“It becomes a big detriment to the speaker’s credibility,” said Mr. Becker, co-founder of the Speech Improvement Company Inc., based in Boston.

Such verbal tics generally don’t rise to the level of a speech disorder and can be corrected largely through simple awareness, said speech-language pathologist Deborah Adamczyk, the director of school services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which represents more than 130,000 speech-language pathologists and related specialists.

For all those making fun of Ms. Kennedy’s “you know” habit, other observers - some in public life themselves - say too much is being made of it.

“Everybody, on some level or another, has some mannerism - whether it’s verbal or physical - that they wish they didn’t have,” said New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat who noted she’s not backing anyone for the potential Senate opening. “That alone shouldn’t be something that becomes the focus of somebody’s skill or ability.”

More than a half-dozen elected officials are vying for Mrs. Clinton’s Senate seat, including New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo and several members of Congress.

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