Thursday, September 04, 2008

Obama's Oratory

The art of speaking to 80,000 people
As a former speechwriter, I know it's not just what you say but how you say it. Barack Obama's performance walked a fine line

* Ian Williams
o Friday August 29 2008 17:30 BST

One of the difficulties for an orator in addressing a stadium-size audience is the loss of the rapport that a more intimate crowd can have. A speech is a joint performance with the audience. Otherwise you could just text it.

Talking to 80,000 people affects the ability to adjust pacing for when the listeners are slow to get a point, or indeed respond more enthusiastically than planned to one, and there were occasions last night when Barack Obama seemed to be playing more by the metronome than the pheromones from the crowd.

But that is minor quibble. His audience was in his hands, and it was a crowd of individuals. This was no rally of serried ranks of uniform supporters. As the camera played over the crowd, the diversity of the supporters reinforced the message of the vox pops that had introduced him. They had been working-class or middle-class people hurting, or perhaps equally worried about being hurt by a faltering economy and his populism without tub-thumping was aimed at them. There were suits and ties for the respectable, baseball caps and novelty sunglasses for the free of spirit, young, old, black, white, casual and formal, scattered indiscriminately across the stands. This was no Jesse Jackson rainbow of discreet hues. It was an integrated pointilliste picture of America.

Obama gave the bravura performance on a tightrope, balancing the hopes and fears of his audiences masterfully. There were enough references to establish his blackness, as if giving the speech on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's iconic speech were not enough in itself. But consciously or otherwise, he eschewed the preacher-like cadences that come naturally and distinctively to black American politicians who switch effortlessly between pulpit and platform.

Even so, his speech had the antiphony of genuine oratory. He was not reading out an op-ed. "This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores."

Without talking down to his audience, or dumbing down his message, he used plain, direct language. I ran it through the spell checker, which, fallible though it may be, gave it a fourth-grade reading level with no passives, backing up my own impression. This was not a wonkish or "elite" speech, but it addressed the issues, concretely, active without being orotund. He also adroitly addressed the criticism, open and implied of voters who are not sure why someone of his complexion has stridden from the back of the bus to the driving seat. He was rightly indignant about the plight of ordinary Americans, without being "angry" in the way that codes for "too black" in the US.

He effected a winning combination of altruism and self-interest, offering not just a dream but a plan, and a plan that addresses the hopes and fears of those white working-class voters. Even his criticisms of McCain were nuanced, substantial without being personal, and sharply witty without being snide: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

"You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives," Obama scored, putting a new wound in the Republican's achilles heel, the Iraq war. To a war-weary electorate he offered a renewed version of Teddy Roosevelt's soft talk/big stick formula, promising tough diplomacy and an efficient military.

That will not stop the attacks of course. As Obama said: "If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from."

Perhaps most impressive was the way that Obama prophylactically anticipated the coming flood of conservative vituperation, taking the attacks and deflecting them back onto the perpetrators with commonsense and wit. "Don't tell me we can't uphold the second amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals." And the calls about lack of experience he countered neatly, suggesting, without naming McCain, that some people may have too much of it. "I realise that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don't fit the typical pedigree and I haven't spent my career in the halls of Washington."

Without dignifying the absurd accusations of elitism and arrogance from sitting politicians and wallowing plutocrats, Obama encapsulates the portmanteau populism of his speech. "History teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington."

After the speech, it may just.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly written, as always Ian, but you're clearly under Obama's spell. He appealed to patriotism and used the word "terror" more than McCain. He lavished heartfelt praise on American soldiers as if they were cherubs. The closer he gets to the Oval Office the more naked his Yankee chauvinism. His use of the word "cave" is, for all intents and purposes, racist, and if you diagree with that, you can't with the assertion that it's demagogic.

If these are the sacrifices of political principle that a progresive must make to gain office, do us a favour and don't run in the first place. In the end, Obama's rise reveals the limitations of American politics, not its possibilities.