It involved Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, on the power of words in presidential leadership.
Each made his or her respective point clearly, calmly, and appealingly. This was not an ambush or a gotcha or a gaffe or an unintentionally revealing quicksilver exchange. It was the expression of thought-through and well expressed views. And on the merits I think it left the Clinton camp at a terrible disadvantage.
Clinton, after pointing out that Obama voted for an energy bill that was full of the special-interest tax breaks he now criticizes in speeches:
So you know, words are not actions.
And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the overdue influence that they have in our government. And you know, probably nobody up here has been the subject of more incoming fire from the Republicans and the special interests, so I think I know exactly what I'm walking into and I am prepared to take them on.
Then, after an appeal by John Edwards to the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of head-on trust-busting, this response from Obama:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes....
[T]he truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Of course each of them was right. Each expressed part of the job of a president, or any leader. Words and deeds. Talk and action. Poetry and prose. Presidents obviously do best when they can do both.
But only Obama captured what is unique about a president's role. A President's actions matter -- Lyndon Johnson with his legislation, Richard Nixon with his opening to China -- but lots of other people can help shape policies. A President's words often matter more, and only he -- or she -- can express them. Grant led the Union Army, but Abraham Lincoln, in addition to selecting Grant, wrote and delivered his inaugural and Gettysburg addresses. Long before Franklin Roosevelt actually did anything about the Great Depression, his first inaugural address ("the only thing we have to fear...") was important in itself. The same was true of Winston Churchill just after he succeeded Neville Chamberlain. It would be years before the Nazi advance would be contained, but Churchill's words and bearing were indispensable to Britain's recovery.
Certainly Hillary Clinton knows this. And she knows the political record of poetry-vs-prose matchups in the past. Kennedy vs. Nixon. Carter vs. Ford (yes, Carter was a man of healing-America poetry in those days). Reagan vs. Mondale. And of course the first Candidate Clinton against his Democratic rival Paul Tsongas and then against the first President Bush. She is playing the hand she holds, but it's worse than the other hand.
One extra thought on this point, from Jimmy Carter himself. This is the way he described the words-vs-action tension in the major speech that laid out his human rights policy, the commencement address at Notre Dame in 1977. I am partial to this formulation, because I was involved in putting it together. But I think it, like Obama's comment, is closer to what Americans expect of their president than what Hillary Clinton has been left with, the "let me handle the details" appeal. Especially what they'll expect of the next president:
We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect--a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused.I understand fully the limits of moral suasion. We have no illusion that changes will come easily or soon.
But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."