Obama’s Smart Speech

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If you have not heard or read Barack Obama’s much-discussed “race speech” from a few weeks ago, I urge you to do so. You can read the transcript here (warning: it’s lengthy).

Now I am far from an apologist for Barack Obama. I have many reservations about him, as I do for the other candidates vying for the presidency. But one area in which I think Obama does exceed Hillary Clinton and John McCain is in rhetorical capability—the command of the spoken, well-articulated word.

Quite simply, Obama’s speeches blow the doors off of any of Clinton’s or McCain’s. Case in point: the “race speech.” Ostensibly delivered as a damage-control oration (to tranquilize the understandably damaging Rev. Wright controversy), the speech turned out to be one of the most complex, nuanced, unexpectedly brilliant bits of prose uttered by an American politician in the last two decades.

The speech was so striking because it did not sound political; it sounded intellectual. It did not pander to the lowest common denominator, but instead demanded a high level of cerebral engagement on the part of the audience. This is all very shocking and uncharacteristic of politics in the 21st century.

Even conservative intellectuals have noted the uncommon intelligence of Obama’s speech. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal editorial by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan:

“The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.

Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line—”And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!”—and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.

Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.

If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they’d get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don’t write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.

They should try it.”

Indeed, I think the reason Obama is so appealing to many of my generation is because he is so very counter to the cable news soundbite/infotainment zeitgeist. He is smart, serious, and eschews political stupidity. After eight years of an “I feel your pain” amoral politico and then eight more years of an anti-intellectual cowboy in the oval office, Americans are aching for something new—something as far from the “establishment” as possible. We don’t want a trigger-happy maverick in the White House; we want an educated visionary. We don’t want a politician in control of the free world; we want a professor.

Obama’s speech was more akin to a lecture by a college professor than it was a policy speech by a politician. It requires more than a thirty second Fox News soundbite to process and inspires us to rediscover the art of thinking through the issues. It recognizes that complicated problems can’t be solved in campaign speeches—but campaign speeches can at least get us thinking productively and critically about what and why these problems are.

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8 responses to “Obama’s Smart Speech

  1. Amen, brother… Like the difference between a bad movie and a good one, the difference between a statesman (like Obama and others) and traditional politicians (like Clinton, McCain, Bush) is clear.

  2. petertchattaway

    It requires more than a thirty second Fox News soundbite to process and inspires us to rediscover the art of thinking through the issues.

    That’s a striking way to put it, because a number of people were initially impressed by the speech precisely because it “sounded” good, and then, the more they thought about it, the more they began to notice its flaws (e.g. the awkward moral equivalences, the way Obama dodged some of the key questions that had been raised, etc.).

    The big question now is whether Team Obama will actually foster further reflection on the issues, or whether they will use the fact that Obama gave a speech once to try to shut up further questions about those issues.

  3. YES…it sounded pretty…but, he has yet to explain why he sat in the pews of a hate-monger. Obama’s good at hiding the truth. If America wants that, they can have it – I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid, though.

  4. After eight years of being force-fed acid by the current administration, I’ll take my chances with the Kool-Aid.

    I thought the speech was eloquent, moving and intelligent. While I believe Obama still has to rise to the occasion and continue to address the deep-seated issues of race in this country, I believe this speech was a perfect start to the dialogue. It was a speech that assumed its audience’s intelligence and maturity. I found it refreshing and hopeful.

  5. I think that the eight-second soundbite phenomenon is directly responsible for the Rev. Wright controversy in the first place. Here are two longer excerpts from Wright’s sermons from which the controversial statements were drawn:

    The first video shows that Wright’s sermon is not about how America is evil. It’s about how governments fail, but God does not. The ‘God damn America’ comment is in response to America’s pretending to be sacrosanct, infallible, and supreme, when America has failed just as have all governments, unlike God, which is the take-away point. The full quote, in fact, is not ‘God damn America,’ but ‘God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is Supreme.’

    In reference to the second video, the sermon that contains the ‘chickens have come home to roost’ is actually about a pacifistic, self-introspective response to violence (specifically Sept. 11). In fact when Wright says his chickens comment he’s actually quoting (and explaining said quote) a white dude on FOX News. And all of this is part of what Wright calls a ‘faith footnote,’ meaning that it isn’t even the point of the sermon— the point of which sermon is about the futility of violence and for self-examination rather than laying blame on others.

    Now, folks may certainly disagree with Wright’s statements politically and theologically, but to take a couple of snippets played ad infinitum on FOX out of context and interpret them to mean that Rev. Wright is a ‘hate-monger’ is exactly the sort of exhausting, cynical, lazy politics that so many would like to move past.

  6. One of the things I like best about Obama’s rhetoric is that he comes off as smart but not haughty. He’s not talking down to you; he’s talking to you like an intellectual peer. Some smart people make you feel insecure about your intellegence when you listen to them. Obama makes you feel smarter.

  7. petertchattaway

    FWIW, I agree that taking snippets out of context and repeating them ad infinitum is a Bad Thing. The bigger problem here is not a sermon here or there, but the particular ideology that drives Obama’s church, and what that might say about the ideology that drove Obama himself to choose that church in the first place. Quite a few people were pointing to the church itself as something that deserved closer scrutiny long before a couple of Wright’s sermons got YouTubed — and it’s unfortunate, in a way, that Obama has been able to dodge the larger questions by trying to pass everything off as nothing more than a few soundbites that got yanked out of context. (In the meantime, it is enough to note that Wright has never apologized for the remarks, or even tried to clarify them, while Obama has openly talked about how he all-but-apologized to Wright for the way other people were interpreting his remarks. That is a far cry from the way Falwell and others issued apologies, pro forma though they may have been, after making similar incendiary remarks.)

  8. Huh. I haven’t listened to or read the speech yet (although I intend to). But I think your point is really interesting–that the majority of speeches are designed for applause-driven soundbites.

    I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the stake in the heart of making speeches (the vampires in the sidebar might have some influence on that metaphor).

    Nobody cares about speeches that anybody makes any more. But speeches USED to be a valid form of communication, particularly for a public figure.

    Now, I tend to see a speech one more scripted performance, one more attempt by a public figure to maintain or create another illusion.

    If the majority of the speeches we hear right now are a string of potential soundbites, of course, we’re not going to see them as anything other than what they are–an attempt to manufacture more publicity, which is a far cry from truly communicating.

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