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Raise High the Rafters

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The underlying struggle—between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us—is the struggle set forth, on a miniature scale, in this book.

Obama’s head speechwriter, a 26-year-old who used to write for Kerry, says his job is like “being Ted Williams’s batting coach.” (A perfect speechwriterly thing to say.) The campaign says Obama would write all his own speeches if he had the time. He apparently wrote both the 2004 DNC speech and the Philadelphia race speech by himself.

Onstage, Obama’s bread-and-butter moves are mainly the ancient rhetorical staples. He loves alliteration (“drive the scourge of slavery from our soil”; “divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics”) and—like a fairy tale or a Pythagorean—tends to gravitate toward groups of three, building triadic phrases (“division and distractions and drama”), sentence sequences (“What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt …”), and successive paragraph openers (“We have been told … We’ve been asked … We’ve been warned …”). He loves to fill out the famous JFK antithesis template—not X but Y:

“A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“Our destiny will not be written for us, but by us.”

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.

“A party that offers not just a difference in policies, but a difference in leadership. A party that doesn’t just focus on how to win but why we should. A party that doesn’t just offer change as a slogan, but real, meaningful change—change that America can believe in.”

His much-discussed debt to the style of African-American preachers manifests itself most obviously in a deep love of refrains: simple phrases (“Yes, we can”; “There is something happening”) that acquire, through repetition, a centripetal poetic force that manages to yoke together diverse, sometimes incongruous aspects of American history. “Yes, we can” (repeated nine times in a single speech) unites the Founding Fathers, slaves and abolitionists, Western pioneers, union organizers, suffragettes, the space program, MLK, underprivileged workers, and children in Texas and California. In another speech, the phrase “Hope is …” (repeated five times) links the struggling poor, the families of contemporary soldiers, the Revolutionary War, WWII, and civil rights. This is the central tension of Obama’s speeches—and, indeed, of his entire candidacy: unruly diversity pulled together by visionary incantations. It links him not only to African-American preachers but to a genealogy of American poets stretching from Whitman to Bob Dylan. (Dylan, not coincidentally, recently endorsed Obama.)

My relationship to Obama has been a complex cycle of enthusiasm canceled immediately by self-correcting cynical objections, canceled by self-correcting enthusiasm, canceled again by the cynicism, canceled by the enthusiasm. Is he really this good, I wonder constantly, or do we just need him to be? The speech that finally tipped my inner scale decisively toward belief was his least decorative: no refrain, little alliteration, no audience exploding at shouted catchphrases—just the man himself standing there solemnly, neutralizing the hysteria of a potentially career-killing scandal with the naked power of grown-up thought. With his race speech, Obama chose the riskiest path in American politics: to be conspicuously thoughtful. It would have been like Clinton, in 1998, giving a long contextualizing address to the nation about human sexuality, the international status of adultery, etc. It was one of the most encouraging political moments I’ve ever experienced.

And yet for all his podium heroics, Obama is inarguably hamstrung by the same anti-intellectual post-Nixonian public-speaking milieu as Clinton and Bush. This means that, although he certainly invokes the glory days, he’s never going to actually bring them back: We don’t have the patience, or the innocence, or the same relationship to politics or words; public habits of attention have changed too deeply. Even Obama’s most highly wrought speeches are less conspicuously artful than JFK’s. Lincoln clinched his nomination with a nearly 8,000-word speech at Cooper Union; Obama’s rough equivalent, the Philly race speech, seemed exorbitantly long at less than 5,000. As a modern politician, he’s forced to speak far more often, and therefore less eloquently, than his historic predecessors (as evidenced in this less-than-Ciceronian opening to a med-school commencement address in 2005: “Congratulations! After four long years of endless studying, sleepless nights, and constant stress, who’s ready to kick back, relax, and jump headfirst into their residency?”).

At the DNC, Obama will face a paradox: He has to prove he’s not a talker by talking better than he ever has before. President Clinton was right that overtly brilliant rhetoric polarizes American voters. Since Obama is already the anointed messiah of excitable college-educated liberals, now he needs to win people who are suspicious of all his pretty speeches. One way to do this is to go ordinary—or, in the Clintonian parlance, “more talky.” The DNC, of course, might be the ideal venue for this. Convention speeches are by definition conventional: overproduced, stadium-sized, riddled with ritualized applause, cheese-ball taglines, balloon drops, and coded appeals to key demographics. Under the g-forces of so much demographic and institutional pressure, Obama could easily surrender to the occasion and be a little less impressive. His greatest speech, in this situation, might actually be a bad one. But, for a candidate whose entire reputation is built on freshness and change and inspiration, ordinariness could be a death blow. Obama’s only real option here is to find a third way: to fundamentally reimagine the occasion, as he did with the race speech, and blow the roof off the building without scaring anyone inside, to give the soaring speech of his lifetime that somehow doesn’t leave behind anyone on the ground.


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