The Hoarse Race: When Candidates Lose Their Voices


By: Wall Street Journal

In Tight Primary Season, There’s Little Time to Try The Silent Treatment
By JOANN S. LUBLIN

“I found my own voice,” a triumphant but slightly hoarse Hillary Clinton told supporters after she won the New Hampshire Democratic primary.

If history is any guide, the New York senator soon will lose it, too.

Presidential hopefuls from John F. Kennedy to Mrs. Clinton’s husband, Bill, lost their voices at some point during White House bids — silencing them temporarily and prompting quests for unusual remedies. Mr. Clinton hummed, drank up to 1½ gallons of water a day and used a wedge pillow when he slept. Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, who dropped out of the 1996 campaign partly because of voice problems, hired a vocal coach, inhaled steam and gargled with tea.

But none of those men had to confront anything like this year’s grueling nomination schedule, with 32 primaries and caucuses before Feb. 6. That is leaving little time to rest tired vocal cords. Candidates are speaking publicly as many as a dozen times a day — at rallies, press interviews and fund-raisers. The strain is audible.

After finishing second in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, Mitt Romney flew overnight to Portsmouth, N.H., where he dived right into a 3:30 a.m. rally in a cold airport hangar. His voice was very hoarse as he shouted encouragement to supporters.

The former Massachusetts governor pressed on. He appeared on morning talk shows and greeted the breakfast crowd at the Golden Egg, a local diner. There, Mr. Romney tried to hail New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg by yelling across the packed restaurant, remembers hostess Patti Fransoso. “He was more hoarse when he left. Poor guy.”

To relieve voice strain, campaign workers will occasionally leave Mr. Romney alone for half an hour so “he can rest undisturbed by phone calls, meetings and speechmaking,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman. “We stay out of his way and he stays silent.” Mr. Romney also prefers silence in his car as he travels between campaign stops.

Two days later, Barack Obama needed help. His voice sounded so croaky that staffers called a doctor to come to his Keene, N.H., hotel late on Jan. 6. The physician examined Mr. Obama’s throat, found no evidence of infection and prescribed several days of rest — less than 48 hours before the New Hampshire primary.

“Those were instructions we had to ignore,” an Obama spokesman said afterward. The Illinois senator finally took a day off on Jan. 12, his first day of rest “in a very, very long time,” says Tommy Vietor, another press aide.

John McCain’s voice was little more than a rasp at Jan. 9 rallies in South Carolina. With a televised campaign debate scheduled the next night, aides sprang into action. They bought the Arizona senator a bottle of olive oil.

The 71-year-old Mr. McCain took a tablespoonful an hour before the debate. It seemed to work. “He sounded great,” recalls Brett O’Donnell, his director of messaging and Liberty University’s director of debate. The olive-oil cure has been “passed down in the speaking profession,” Mr. O’Donnell says.

Politicians get all sorts of advice about how to combat hoarseness. Mr. Obama’s favorite home remedy consists of hot water, lemon, honey and ginger, according to Mr. Vietor. But some suggestions are ineffective or potentially harmful, throat specialists say.

Jonathan Aviv, an otolaryngology professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, recommends that presidential contenders take antacids daily and avoid caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and mint. He says they all aggravate gastric reflux, which can irritate vocal cords.

But it’s hard to wean exhausted candidates from their frequent jolts of caffeine. Mr. O’Donnell saw Mr. McCain consume nearly a whole pot of coffee when they first met for breakfast in May 2006. He urged the Arizona senator to cut back.

Sen. McCain now limits his coffee to about two cups daily, and he doesn’t drink any for a few hours before a debate. The result? “His throat felt better,” Mr. O’Donnell reports.

Some advice from specialists sounds counterintuitive. For example, Dr. Aviv advises that candidates not whisper when they get hoarse because whispering stretches vocal cords. “It’s the worst thing you can do,” he says.

Humming, however, may help. Battling repeated bouts of laryngitis during his 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton learned to feel vibrations in the middle of his face and nose as he hummed, says James Y. Suen, his longtime otolaryngologist. Speaking from this “mask” area gives people “a better voice when they are hoarse” and reduces strain on vocal cords, the Little Rock, Ark., doctor explains.

Often summoned to Mr. Clinton’s side when the candidate lost his voice that year, Dr. Suen encouraged him to hum constantly. “We would ride in elevators humming ‘Amazing Grace’ with staff members,” the throat specialist recalls. Dr. Suen told Clinton aides to ask only yes-or-no questions during car and plane rides. A Clinton spokesman declines to comment.

The current crop of presidential aspirants might ease hoarseness with similar simple steps, other voice experts and campaign veterans believe. For instance, they could keep their vocal cords warm by wearing scarves indoors, suggests Peggy Klaus, a communication and leadership coach in Berkeley, Calif.

Posture matters, too. While seated at a New Hampshire campaign event, Mrs. Clinton jutted her head forward — putting a strain on her vocal cords, Ms. Klaus says. Thomas Murry, a New York speech-language pathologist, notices that Mr. Obama improperly “sticks out his chin over the microphone.” Clinton and Obama spokesmen decline to comment.

Silence is golden, of course, but impractical. Dr. Suen told Mr. Clinton to shut up for four days in the spring of 1992. “He didn’t follow orders,” the physician says. “He kept giving speeches.”

Gov. Wilson ignored medical advice to not talk for weeks after the April 1995 removal of a benign vocal cord nodule, caused he says by 30 years of politicking. Busy raising money for his planned presidential bid, “I was a very bad patient,” he says.

The governor’s voice cracked so much during fund-raising speeches that one surgeon cautioned he might lose it forever. “I stopped speaking for three months,” Mr. Wilson says. “I wrote notes like a demon.” His campaign died that September, a month after it was officially launched.

The novelty of running for president without a voice “wears off very quickly,” Mr. Wilson warns.

Write to Joann S. Lublin at joann.lublin@wsj.com

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