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Barack Obama, champion orator

As a speechwriter, I give a lot of thought to oratory. And to give credit where it's due, Barack Obama  has done a lot to hype the stock of speechwriters everywhere.

Who couldn't love lines like these?

My friends, we meet here today at a time where we find ourselves at a crossroads in America's history.

It's a time where you can go to any town hall or street corner or coffee shop and hear people express the same anxiety about the future; hear them convey the same uncertainty about the direction we're headed as a country. Whether it's the war or Katrina or their health care or their jobs, you hear people say that we've finally arrived at a moment where something must change.

These are Americans who still believe in an America where anything's possible — they just don't think their leaders do. These are Americans who still dream big dreams — they just sense their leaders have forgotten how.

Wow. Makes me feel tingly all over. Or how about this, in much the same vein:

We have been a nation adrift too long. We have been without leadership too long. We have had divided and deadlocked government too long…. We have suffered enough at the hands of a tired and worn-out administration without new ideas, without youth or vitality, without vision and without the confidence of the American people. There is a fear that our best years are behind us. But I say to you that our nation’s best is still ahead.

Our country has lived through a time of torment. It is now a time for healing. We want to have faith again. We want to be proud again. We just want the truth again.

It is time for the people to run the government, and not the other way around.

Or this:

We must draw upon your spirit, your pride, and your essential goodness as never before. For the problems we face will not be solved by one person, or one party, by one branch of government, or  by one sector of our economy.

Only when we allow our actions to be guided,  not by the conflicting loyalties that divide us but by the common interests that unite us — only then will we find the solutions we seek and the answers we need.

The first quotation, by the way, is from Obama's "Take Back America" speech (June 14, 2006). The second is from Jimmy Carter's inaugural address. The last is from the inaugural address James C. Humes and I wrote for Governor Dick Thornburgh in January 1979.

There's the problem, I think. You could shuffle the deck completely, and no one in the audience would be the wiser.

Not to minimize my craft — which has provided me with a comfortable living for many years — but every weapon in the speechwriter's arsenal can be purchased for $14.93 (plus shipping) on Amazon. Arranging them in the right order costs a little more, but it's chump change compared to the price of even a modest federal bailout.

As Mario Cuomo famously put it, you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. Poetry can get you laid or get you elected (or, in the case of Bill Clinton and John Edwards, sometimes both), but it won't help you with the hard business of facing down foreign enemies, re-igniting a stalled economy or bringing some small sense of adult responsibility to a profligate Congress.

The problem I see with Barack Obama is that, having campaigned more years than he's ever governed, he's mainly poetry, self-righteousness and very little prose. Worse still, what prose there's been seems to have been written on Bill Ayers' kitchen table.

H. L. Mencken, wrote in The American Mercury, December, 1924:

The theory that the ancient Greeks and Romans were men of the vast and ineffable superiority runs aground on the fact that they were great admirers of oratory. No other art was so assiduously practiced among them. Today we venerate the architects and dramatists of Greece far more than we venerate its orators, but the Greeks themselves put the orators first, and in consequence much better records of them are preserved today. But oratory, as a matter of fact, is the lowest of the arts. Where is it most respected? Among savages, in and out of civilization. The yokels of the open spaces flock by the thousand to hear in imbeciles yawp and heave; the city proletariat goes to political meetings and glues its ear to the radio every night. But what genuinely civilized man would turn out to hear even the champion orator of the country?

What civilized man, indeed?

Posted by Rodger on November 3, 2008 at 11:56 AM | Permalink


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