Several days ago I argued that what made Barack Obama's "big" speeches sound unusual was that they attempted something that among politicians is indeed rare: Not expressing our preexisting views with new clarity and edge but instead asking us to change our minds. I also said it was no accident that Obama had saved these ambitious speeches until he was in the White House, since a campaign was a time for troop-rallying rhetoric rather than asking people to think too hard.
Herewith one message in agreement and one in dissent. First, from Eric Redman, author of The Dance of Legislation (and longtime close friend of mine) who had been a devotee of Richard Neustadt's famous presidential-power analyses in college and eventually delivered a eulogy for Neustadt and contributed to a memorial volume about him. The turn in Obama's rhetoric after the election, Redman says,
made me think of Neustadt's enigmatic advice in 1968 when I was about to take time off from school to go write speeches for Senator Magnuson. Dick had written campaign speeches for President Truman. His writing was finely worked, highly polished. I asked for advice in the craft. He frowned and thought carefully. Then he said, "Remember, a campaign is not a good time to educate the public." I puzzled over that for 35 years, and repeated it, partly for a laugh (which it produced), in my eulogy at his memorial service.
It was not until I was doing the research for "Neustadt in Brazil" [in the memorial volume] that I listened to him on tape explain (in response to a questioner criticizing Lula [da Silva, prez of Brazil] for not living up to his campaign promises) that the time to educate the people (impliedly with speeches) is when you are in office. Neustadt was not only recommending that Lula do it, he was explaining why it would work. Then it all made sense to me, and I was even able to explain to some who had heard the eulogy and, like me, been puzzled ever since hearing the original advice.
Now, and after the jump, dissent from Carlyn Meyer, who thinks I am under-valuing the content of Obama's stump speeches through the campaign:
While I appreciate your annotation of the five big speeches since his election (plus the race speech), I have to disagree that the basic stump speech differed in quality. If anything, he used it to test out his broad concepts and way of speaking to people. Here's why: