Sunday, July 20, 2008

Presidential Speechifying

I was asked a while back in the comments of a previous post about my supposed infatuation with Barack Obama. I'll be honest and admit that his speeches are one of the substantial things I like about the guy; it's not the soaring rhetoric about hope or change that moves me (although I do understand it's appeal) but rather that I don't feel like I'm being talked down to when I hear him speak. The man stands in front of teachers unions and talks about merit based raises or black churches and talks about the responsibilities of parenthood; he speaks hard truths to the very electorate he's trying to woo and he does it with intelligence and aplomb.

Does he pander at times? Of course, he's a politician. Sadly, you don't get elected in this country without it and it's become more prevalent over the years but as Sam Anderson writes in New York Magazine, Obama's highly educated speaking style is breaking away from this trend:

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...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.

As the last seven years have proven, pretending to be a regular guy that America would like to have a beer with is hardly a qualification to be the president; it requires exceptional intelligence, executive prowess, thoughtful analysis and honest communication. One of the reasons I support Barack Obama is that I can see him actually taking the time to think about the questions he's asked before he answers them, a true rarity in this day and age. I get the sense that he wants to become president not for the power or the fame or to increase the fortunes of his political cronies but to make America a better place for everyone here and to renew our reputation on the world stage. In this, he and I share the same goals.

[Update: One of Andrew Sullivan's readers makes what I think is a very smart observation:
...I think part of the reason Bill resents Obama is because he's doing a lot of things the way Bill wanted to do them, but was talked out of by his advisors.

Obama's speechifying is everything Clinton's could have been - unrestrained, rhetorically brilliant, unapologetic - except that Bill chose to go the "dumb-down" route and so eschewed all the intellectual acclaim that the former Rhodes Scholar could have claimed. He chose to accept the conventional wisdom that the average American was too dumb to follow a collegiate level speech. Seeing Obama pull it off must be infuriating - it's like watching someone win a race you know you could have won too, except everyone told you not to enter.]

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