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Raise High the Rafters

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Obama drew a crowd of 75,000 at a rally in Portland, Oregon, in May.  

Michael Chabon, arguably America’s best line-by-line literary stylist, says he became a proselytizing Obama supporter after reading a particularly impressive turn of phrase in the senator’s second book—a conversion experience that seems, on first glance, inexcusably silly, but on fifth glance might be slightly profound. How much can you tell about a candidate’s fitness to lead a country based on a single clause? The substance/style debate has been around for centuries—and, like all the other venerable binaries, is probably best considered as a symbiosis. Too often, style is dismissed as merely a sauce on the nutritious bread of substance, when in fact it’s inevitably a form of substance itself. This goes double for the presidency, where brilliant policy requires brilliant public discourse. If you can think your way through a sentence, through the algorithms involved in condensing information verbally and pitching it to an audience, through the complexities of animating historical details into narrative, then you can think your way through a policy paper, or a diplomatic discussion, or a 3 A.M. phone call. Bush’s difficulty with basic units of syntax has not been trivial: It signals a wider habit of mind that has extended to every corner of governance. Hillary’s tendency to express herself in distant clichés very likely lost her the nomination—and, one might argue, rightfully so. Style tells us, in a second, what substance couldn’t tell us in a year. It’s silly to downplay the importance of verbal intelligence to a job that makes you the mouthpiece of arguably the most influential nation in the world. As Ezra Pound once wrote, “The mot juste is of public utility … We are governed by words, the laws are graven in words, and literature is the sole means of keeping these words living and accurate.”

Brilliant policy requires brilliant public discourse. If you can think your way through a sentence, then you can think your way through a policy paper—or a 3 A.M. phone call.

More than any other recent politician, Obama is a literary phenomenon. Like America itself, he’s addicted to origin myths. He’s built his political success on the back of compulsive autobiography, the brilliant telling and retelling, and then retelling some more, of his divinely unorthodox life story: the great sweeping legend of Obamerica, the fusion of man and nation, whose manifest destiny extends all the way to the White House. It’s significant that he used his first appearance in the national spotlight, the keynote speech at Kerry’s DNC, to meta-sketch the inspirational origin of that very keynote speech: “Let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he said, and then unleashed, in about 60 seconds, a pithy intergenerational family saga spanning three continents and all the major events of mid-twentieth-century America (Depression, Pearl Harbor, postwar boom)—complete with such unlikely details as goat herding, a tin-roof shack, oil rigs, and Patton’s army marching across Europe. It was like a brilliant movie trailer designed to promote the incalculably awesome feature attraction of his future political career. To deny his candidacy, after that, would be to deny a very powerful narrative logic—the goats, the tin-roof shack, Patton, all of it. Every politician tries to tell stories, of course, to harness the emotional momentum of narrative in the service of an agenda. But few do so as naturally as Obama. All serious candidates have a maniacal ambition—in retrospect, Hillary’s looked unflattering because she didn’t nest it quite deeply enough in a persuasive narrative logic; Barack’s is so embedded in an attractive story that we hardly even notice it.

According to Lim, one of the major causes of our presidential ineloquence has been the outsourcing of speechwriting. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson wrote their own speeches; FDR was the first president to employ a large team of writers, but they doubled as deeply engaged policy advisers, and Roosevelt continued to draft major speeches himself. It wasn’t until the middle of the century that the gulf between presidential words and thought began to yawn. In 1968, Nixon declared an official division of labor between speechwriting and policy advising, thereby establishing the modern paradigm: Our speeches have become increasingly abstract and general, our policy talk less vivid and public. Jimmy Carter was hardly involved with his speeches at all; Reagan didn’t know the names of most of his speechwriters.

Obama promises to close this rift, insofar as it can be closed in a media climate that demands endless speeches and micro-trolls them for the tiniest slip-ups. As a writer, he has unusually strong credentials: He wrote two books all by himself, the first of which (Dreams From My Father, a memoir written in his early thirties, before he held office) has become legendary for its impolitic honesty (cocaine) and nuanced, thoughtful style. Consider the following passage, in which Obama describes the hidden resonance between the war on terror and his own autobiography:


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