Obama’s Smart Speech
If you have not heard or read Barack Obama’s much-discussed “race speech” from a few weeks ago, I urge you to do so. You can read the transcript here (warning: it’s lengthy).
Now I am far from an apologist for Barack Obama. I have many reservations about him, as I do for the other candidates vying for the presidency. But one area in which I think Obama does exceed Hillary Clinton and John McCain is in rhetorical capability—the command of the spoken, well-articulated word.
Quite simply, Obama’s speeches blow the doors off of any of Clinton’s or McCain’s. Case in point: the “race speech.” Ostensibly delivered as a damage-control oration (to tranquilize the understandably damaging Rev. Wright controversy), the speech turned out to be one of the most complex, nuanced, unexpectedly brilliant bits of prose uttered by an American politician in the last two decades.
The speech was so striking because it did not sound political; it sounded intellectual. It did not pander to the lowest common denominator, but instead demanded a high level of cerebral engagement on the part of the audience. This is all very shocking and uncharacteristic of politics in the 21st century.
Even conservative intellectuals have noted the uncommon intelligence of Obama’s speech. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal editorial by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan:
“The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.
Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line—”And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!”—and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.
Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.
If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they’d get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don’t write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.
They should try it.”
Indeed, I think the reason Obama is so appealing to many of my generation is because he is so very counter to the cable news soundbite/infotainment zeitgeist. He is smart, serious, and eschews political stupidity. After eight years of an “I feel your pain” amoral politico and then eight more years of an anti-intellectual cowboy in the oval office, Americans are aching for something new—something as far from the “establishment” as possible. We don’t want a trigger-happy maverick in the White House; we want an educated visionary. We don’t want a politician in control of the free world; we want a professor.
Obama’s speech was more akin to a lecture by a college professor than it was a policy speech by a politician. It requires more than a thirty second Fox News soundbite to process and inspires us to rediscover the art of thinking through the issues. It recognizes that complicated problems can’t be solved in campaign speeches—but campaign speeches can at least get us thinking productively and critically about what and why these problems are.