Barack Obama’s upcoming speech at the Democratic National Convention is—barring the miraculous reanimation of Winston Churchill’s corpse, sometime in mid-July, to recite the Sermon on the Mount in twelve different languages—pretty much a lock to be the rhetorical blockbuster event of the summer. The speech offers, among many other hooks, a tidy dramatic symmetry. Obama first stepped out of the political phone booth on this occasion four years ago, when he gave the climactic keynote address for John Kerry’s otherwise legendarily droopy campaign. In ten minutes, America watched him rip off the rumpled suit of anonymous, mild-mannered state-senatorhood and squeeze into the gaudy cape and tights of our national oratorical superhero—a honey-tongued Frankenfusion of Lincoln, Gandhi, Cicero, Jesus, and all our most cherished national acronyms (MLK, JFK, RFK, FDR). Although he may have been canonized a little quickly, Obama has since managed to justify much of the hype. Over the course of his protracted death-grapple with Hillary, he delivered more game-changing speeches than most politicians muster in a full career: the momentum-swinging pre-Iowa dinner speech, the legitimizing post-Iowa victory speech, the YouTube-ready sloganeering (“Yes, we can”) after his loss in New Hampshire, and, in Philadelphia, a masterpiece—the shockingly honest (Grandma was a racist), paradigm-cracking, scandal-defusing 5,000-word disquisition about the cross-pollinating complexities of American race.
Along the way, he became the first candidate in many cycles for whom speeches were not purely formal, schedule-plugging cliché-orgies but potent and densely written tactical weapons—and even occasionally, minor literary achievements. His words from little platforms in Iowa and New Hampshire carried around the world. (In the central plaza of Marrakech, surrounded by cobras and dancing monkeys, a Moroccan waiter recently recited to me, word for word, long portions of Obama’s New Hampshire speech: “It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.”) So, as Obama heads back to the spectacle that launched him, this time under completely different circumstances, he runs up against one of the most difficult conundrums in American politics. He has to extend his popularity, which he built on the strength of his electric speechmaking and subtle intellect, to a new audience that is deeply ambivalent about precisely those qualities.
A major reason that Obama’s rhetoric seems to soar so high is that our expectations have sunk so low. In a new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin T. Lim subjects all the words ever publicly intoned by American presidents to a thorough statistical analysis—and he finds, unsurprisingly, an alarmingly steady decline. A century ago, Lim writes, presidential speeches were pitched at a college reading level; today, they’re down to eighth grade, and if the trend continues, next century’s State of the Union addresses will be conducted at the level of “a comic strip or a fifth-grade textbook.” (“Iran’s crawling with bad guys: BAP!”) Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22. Between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7. Today’s State of the Unions inspire roughly 30 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of speech. Although it’s tempting to blame the sorry state of things on the current malapropist-in-chief, Bush is only the latest flower (though, obviously, a particularly striking one) on a very deep weed. Our most brilliant presidents, Lim says, often work hard to seem publicly dumb in order to avoid the stain of elitism—amazingly, Bill Clinton’s total rhetorical output checks in at a lower reading level than Bush’s. Clinton’s former speechwriters told Lim that their image-conscious boss always demanded that his speeches be “more talky”; today, he’s widely remembered as a brilliant speaker who never gave a memorable speech.
Obama seems to have taken the opposite tack: He’s a Clinton-style natural who flaunts the artifice of his speeches and refuses to strategically hide his intelligence. Compared with his rivals, Obama’s skill-set seems almost otherworldly. His phrases line up regularly in striking and meaningful patterns; his cliché ratio is, for a politician, admirably low; his stresses and pauses seem dictated less by the usual metronome of generic political speech than by the actual structures of meaning behind his words. He tolerates complexity to such an extent that he’s sometimes criticized as “professorial,” which allows him to get away with inspirational catchphrases that would sound like platitudes coming from anyone else. His naïve-sounding calls for change are persuasive largely because he’s already managed to improve one of our most intractable political problems: the decades-old, increasingly virulent plague of terrible speechifying. The signature project of his candidacy—before health care or housing or Iraq—seems to be the reuniting of presidential discourse with actual, visible thought. It is not a trivial achievement.