On Obama's "lousy, empty speeches"

I’ve been giving some thought to a column by Gideon Rachman in last week's FT on the “lousy, empty speeches” of Barack Obama. Gideon is a brilliant fellow and, it so happens, an old friend. It has troubled me that he could be so wrong about this, and I feel I owe it to him to set him straight.

Surely the simplest test of a speaker is the effect he has on his audience. It is indisputable that Obama has moved and even inspired hundreds of thousands of listeners. This is something that even his political enemies concede. His speeches might be “empty”—I’ll come back to that—but how can a political speech be “lousy” if it does exactly what a great political speech is supposed to?

One answer of course might be that the people Obama impresses are all idiots, or more than usually susceptible to mass hysteria. Since I myself find his speeches moving, this argument does not much appeal to me—but that might be how Gideon accounts for Obama’s success. Some of the adulation is exaggerated enough, I admit, to lend this view credence. But it isn’t just Obamaniacs, or Democrats, or wavering independents such as myself who admire the man’s way with a speech. People who would never dream of voting for him agree that he is a fabulous speaker. Has the whole country lost its mind over Obama’s oratory? I think I would rather say, “He is a great speaker. Just look at the results.”

Gideon is on firmer ground when he calls the speeches vacuous. The problem here, though, is that the best political speeches are almost always vacuous, at least in the sense that Gideon invokes—namely, failing to get “stuck into the detail”.

Unwilling to argue that Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy gave lousy, empty speeches—why is that, by the way?—Gideon has to assert that “the fierce urgency of now” meant something momentous when King said it but was meaningless when Obama quoted the phrase. And he has to say that JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” really amounted to something, whereas Obama’s “Yes we can” is vapid. But all those expressions are impotent when excerpted from the speeches they were used in. They derive their force from the words that surrounded them, and from the circumstances in which they were spoken.

Gideon lays great stress on challenging the audience: that is why King and Kennedy were great orators, he says, and Obama is not. But isn’t “Yes we can” a call to action—a challenge to the audience—much like “Ask not…”? Also, remember that Obama’s main audience at the moment is the Democratic electorate. On some important issues, notably trade, he has pandered to party sentiment. But his theme of national unity really does challenge the Democratic base. This call is indeed, as Gideon muses doubtfully, “less obvious than it sounds”.

Many Democrats hunger for revenge after two terms of George Bush; the mutual loathing of the two parties would be difficult to exaggerate. When Obama calls on Democrats to reach out to Republicans and make common cause in addressing health reform and other issues—with his party controlling both houses of Congress and confident (maybe too confident) of winning the White House as well—you bet he is challenging his audience. It tells you something that he has been the only Democratic candidate to do it. The strategy risked offending the progressive wing of the party; because of it, many of its members remain suspicious, despite his (from their point of view) impeccable voting record.

“Why is this stuff so appealing?” Gideon asks. Here is my answer. Obama understands rhetoric. (That repeated “Yes we can…”, with variations, is called anaphora.) He has an appealing, positive and uplifting message. As I say, he (gently) challenges his audience. His timing is good: he promises a less combative style of politics, and this is something the country now wants. And let’s not forget that he is black. The possibility, now becoming the probability, that Obama will be America’s first black president gives every speech a mighty extra jolt of excitement. People who listen to his speeches think that history is being made. Every orator should be so lucky.

One more thing. In my column for Monday’s FT (which I'll post shortly), I ask what went wrong with Hillary’s campaign. I mention her difficulty in seeming sincere. Obama has no such difficulty. He seems authentic. In American politics, that is an unusual thing, and it makes a huge difference. (“What greater crime can an orator be charged with than that his opinions and his language are not the same?” – Demosthenes.)