World-Class Snark from the Economist
The Democratic Primaries Are Over

On Obama's Rhetoric

Clive Crook affects to be wounded by Gideon Rachman:

Clive Crook (March 02, 2008) - On Obama's speeches, cont'd: First of all... let me say how stunned I am to be accused of (in my previous life at The Economist) "remorseless logic, fierce invective, and a total lack of sentimentality". Gideon, you wound me, I bleed. Surely not. I was universally regarded as a complete softy--or so it seemed to me, at least. Don't tell me that wasn't so.

Gideon relies more explicitly than before on the "Obama's fans are all idiots" explanation of the candidate's appeal. Obama, he suggests, is the Barbara Cartland of American politics.... Gideon's tastes are more refined than that--as are mine, needless to say. But Obama's speeches impress a surprisingly wide demographic, if this point is correct. In fact, Obama seems especially liked by the kind of metropolitan intellectuals who share Gideon's and my disdain for brainless romantic fiction. Something about him, whatever it is, clicks with poor urban blacks and with Harvard academics....

If somebody is unmoved by a speech, there is nothing anyone can say to change his mind. It is a personal thing, no doubt. But the "Obama's fans are all idiots" theory that underlies Gideon's view seems to me just a case of poor observation. It simply isn't true.

On "Yes we can...", Gideon continues to apply an obvious double standard. "I have a dream". Yeah, yeah, yeah. "Ask not what your country can do for you..." Yadda, yadda, yadda. These phrases resonate when--and only when--they make their intended connection with the audience. Again this is a matter of observation rather than textual deduction....

The point about "Yes we can..." is the "we"--that is, the summons to the audience.... To say it lacks substance... is to miss the point. You might as well say that the Gettysburg address would have been improved with some figures on the casualties, and obviously a lot more detail, for heaven's sake, on what "government of the people, by the people, for the people" really means.

Great moments help to make great orators. In this Obama has an unfair advantage, I cannot deny. He is the only candidate who might be America's first black president. His candidacy is the very reason why this election feels--to Americans anyway--freighted with historical significance. This does not make Obama's words read any differently on the page. But it lends his speeches extra meaning and force. He knows that, and uses it. The best political speakers down the years have always merged context and content to their advantage.

Hillary is surely right. Great speeches do not make a great president. But somebody once said (was it Groucho again?), "Money isn't everything, but lack of money isn't anything." I feel much the same about good speeches.

I don't know about Clive, but I still believe in a place called Hope.