When Hillary Clinton sensed her presidential hopes beginning to slip away, she turned to an attack on Barack Obama’s rhetoric. “There’s a big difference between us,” she argued, “speeches versus solutions, talk versus action. . . . Words are cheap.” And further: “Speeches don’t put food on the table”—as though her own hectoring and position papers were an all-you-can-eat buffet.
John McCain will be tempted to make a similar attack, having already accused Obama of offering “only rhetoric.” And it, too, would be a mistake.
Many political advisers in both parties employ “rhetoric” as a synonym for “folderol.” Winging it in speeches is generally viewed as more authentic, and authenticity plays well with dial groups—groups that also helpfully inform us that Americans don’t like downbeat words such as “war” or “sacrifice” or “poverty,” preferring instead cheerful terms such as “marshmallows” and “pixie dust.”
This is nonsense. From the Greek beginnings of political rhetoric, the wise have described a relationship between the discipline of writing and the discipline of thought. The construction of serious speeches forces candidates (or presidents) to grapple with their own beliefs, even when they don’t write every word themselves. If those convictions cannot be marshaled in the orderly battalions of formal rhetoric, they are probably incoherent.
The triumph of shoddy, thoughtless spontaneity is the death of rhetorical ambition. A memorable, well-crafted speech includes historical references that cultivate national memory and unity—“Four score and seven years ago.” It makes use of rhythm and repetition to build enthusiasm and commitment—“I have a dream.” And a great speech finds some way to rephrase the American creed, describing an absolute human equality not always evident to the human eye.
Civil rights leaders possessed few weapons but eloquence—and their words hardly came cheap. Every president eventually needs the tools of rhetoric, to stiffen national resolve in difficult times or to honor the dead unfairly taken.
It is not a failure for Obama to understand and exercise this element of leadership; it is an advantage.
Some Obama critics go even further, accusing him of inducing a “creepy,” “cultish” “euphoria.” A candidate delivers a good stump speech, adds a dose of personal magnetism and suddenly he is a sorcerer, practicing the dark arts of demagoguery.
But Obamamania is pretty mild stuff compared with our rhetorical history. When William Jennings Bryan finished his “Cross of Gold” Speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, extending his hands outward in cruciform melodrama, witnesses described a 40-minute riot, with “hills and valleys of shrieking men and women” and old men “crying bitterly, great tears rolling from their eyes into their bearded cheeks.” After Douglas MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress in 1951, Rep. Dewey Short shouted: “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God!”
Ah, those were the days of real rhetorical witchcraft.
It is not uncommon for American politicians to rise on the swell of their own words. A young Hubert Humphrey gained prominence at the 1948 Democratic convention with an uncompromising speech on civil rights, confronting those who thought America was “rushing” the issue: “I say to them we are 172 years late!” Ronald Reagan earned a national reputation making his televised case for Barry Goldwater in 1964, condemning Cold War appeasement with the argument that “the martyrs of history were not fools.”
Obama is the latest in this distinguished series. Should he become the Democratic nominee, his own convention is likely to see hills and valleys of shrieking men and women. And why not? His speech will be ambitious, well delivered and historic—the Democratic Party did not even admit African American delegates until 1936.
Obama’s rhetorical skill will present a problem for McCain. The Arizona senator’s close adviser Mark Salter is among the best writers in American politics. But McCain’s delivery is often rigid and old-fashioned—sprinkled with “my friends” in the manner of Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. And his use of the teleprompter is more awkward and obvious than Obama’s.
McCain can and should make an ideological case against his opponent. Why does Obama want to fight terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not in Iraq? How would it advance the war on terrorism to grant al-Qaeda’s fondest wish—an untimely American retreat from the Middle East? Would Obama really devote his first year in office to a series of surrender summits with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea?
These are serious criticisms; the argument against rhetoric is not. Obama’s political weakness is that he is too liberal, not that he is too eloquent.
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