On Obama's speeches, cont'd


Gideon Rachman has posted a response to my post on his column about Obama's speeches. I'll offer a last brief word, and then leave the verdict on Obama's speeches to history. First of all, though, on a personal note, let me say how stunned I am to be accused of (in my previous life at The Economist) "remorseless logic, fierce invective, and a total lack of sentimentality". Gideon, you wound me, I bleed. Surely not. I was universally regarded as a complete softy--or so it seemed to me, at least. Don't tell me that wasn't so.

Though he still stops short of saying it outright, in his response Gideon relies more explicitly than before on the "Obama's fans are all idiots" explanation of the candidate's appeal. Obama, he suggests, is the Barbara Cartland of American politics. (I have to wonder how many people have been inspired by Barbara Cartland, but let that pass.) Gideon's tastes are more refined than that--as are mine, needless to say. But Obama's speeches impress a surprisingly wide demographic, if this point is correct. In fact, Obama seems especially liked by the kind of metropolitan intellectuals who share Gideon's and my disdain for brainless romantic fiction. Something about him, whatever it is, clicks with poor urban blacks and with Harvard academics. As I pointed out, many of his political enemies--smart ones and stupid ones alike--think he gives a great speech.

If somebody is unmoved by a speech, there is nothing anyone can say to change his mind. It is a personal thing, no doubt. But the "Obama's fans are all idiots" theory that underlies Gideon's view seems to me just a case of poor observation. It simply isn't true.

On "Yes we can...", Gideon continues to apply an obvious double standard. "I have a dream". Yeah, yeah, yeah. "Ask not what your country can do for you..." Yadda, yadda, yadda. These phrases resonate when--and only when--they make their intended connection with the audience. Again this is a matter of observation rather than textual deduction. If analysis of the words says "this is a lousy speech", and the speech brings the house down night after night, exciting many different kinds of audience, then there is something wrong with the analysis.

The point about "Yes we can..." is the "we"--that is, the summons to the audience. Of course it might mean nothing in practice. That hardly needs saying. But the same was true of "Ask not..." To say it lacks substance, to complain about lack of detail, is to miss the point. You might as well say that the Gettysburg address would have been improved with some figures on the casualties, and obviously a lot more detail, for heaven's sake, on what "government of the people, by the people, for the people" really means.

Great moments help to make great orators. In this Obama has an unfair advantage, I cannot deny. He is the only candidate who might be America's first black president. His candidacy is the very reason why this election feels--to Americans anyway--freighted with historical significance. This does not make Obama's words read any differently on the page. But it lends his speeches extra meaning and force. He knows that, and uses it. The best political speakers down the years have always merged context and content to their advantage.

Hillary is surely right. Great speeches do not make a great president. But somebody once said (was it Groucho again?), "Money isn't everything, but lack of money isn't anything." I feel much the same about good speeches.

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