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.
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:
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.