Friday, March 21, 2008

A speech to think to, not clap to

Peggy Noonan knows a thing or two about speeches – she served as speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Here is Ms. Noonan’s take on Senator Obama’s speech on March 18th in Philadelphia:
I thought Barack Obama's speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to. It was clear that's what he wanted, and this is rare.

It seemed to me as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics. As such it was a contribution. We'll see if it was a success. The blowhard guild, proud member since 2000, praised it, and, in the biggest compliment, cable news shows came out of the speech not with jokes or jaded insiderism, but with thought. They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they'd experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.

You know what Mr. Obama said. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was wrong. His sermons were "incendiary," and they "denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation." Mr. Obama admitted that if all he knew of Mr. Wright were what he saw on the "endless loop . . . of YouTube," he wouldn't like him either. But he's known him 20 years as a man who taught him Christian faith, helped the poor, served as a Marine, and leads a community helping the homeless, needy and sick. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me." He would not renounce their friendship.

Most significantly, Mr. Obama asserted that race in America has become a generational story. The original sin of slavery is a fact, but the progress we have lived through the past 50 years means each generation experiences race differently. Older blacks, like Mr. Wright, remember Jim Crow and were left misshapen by it. Some rose anyway, some did not; of the latter, a "legacy of defeat" went on to misshape another generation. The result: destructive anger that is at times "exploited by politicians" and that can keep African-Americans "from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition." But "a similar anger exists within segments of the white community." He speaks of working- and middle-class whites whose "experience is the immigrant experience," who started with nothing. "As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything, they've built it from scratch." "So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town," when they hear of someone receiving preferences they never received, and "when they're told their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced," they feel anger too.

This is all, simply, true. And we are not used to political figures being frank, in this way, in public. For this Mr. Obama deserves deep credit. It is also true the particular whites Obama chose to paint -- ethnic, middle class -- are precisely the voters he needs to draw in Pennsylvania. It was strategically clever. But as one who witnessed busing in Boston first hand, and whose memories of those days can still bring tears, I was glad for his admission that busing was experienced as an injustice by the white working class. Next step: admitting it was an injustice, period.

The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech can be found in two words, endemic and Faulkner. Endemic is the kind of word political consultants don't let politicians use because 72% of Americans don't understand it. This lowest-common-denominator thinking, based on dizzy polling, has long degraded American discourse. When Obama said Mr. Wright wrongly encouraged "a view that sees white racism as endemic," everyone understood. Because they're not, actually, stupid. As for Faulkner -- well, this was an American politician quoting William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." This is a thought, an interesting one, which means most current politicians would never share it.

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.
You can read the entire piece here.

1 comment:

Dan Stiles said...

Where Have All of the Other People Gone?

After listening to all of the political rhetoric concerning race in America I have to ask myself, “Where have all of the other people gone?” The last time I looked, America was divided into many more groups than black and white.
And with all of the references being made to America being a divided nation and how Obama is going to bring us all together, I feel compelled to remind him, and everyone else that will listen, that skin shade is not the only thing that divides us. So why then is it then that it is the only so-called division factor that is being played out in the media and cast in to all of the bigoted remarks I have heard on the radio and TV.
If we are going to talk about race, let’s be fair and call it what it really is, inequality. And while we are giving that a name, let’s be fair and throw everyone into the mix that are treated unfairly. That is the only way we are going to truly unite this nation and live up to the notion that America is the greatest nation on earth.
I do believe that African Americans are treated unfairly, but they are in good company. What about all other minority races? What about women, Homosexuals, children, poor people of all colors, disabled people, obese people, the list goes on and on. Why then do I not hear equality for all people being preached from the pulpit, used in political platforms or reported in the news? Why does a country that is based on the constitution find themselves passing laws that prohibit discrimination based on these differences? Can’t anybody see what has happened here?
It’s true, Hilary has probably never been called the “N” word, but I am quite sure that Jeremiah Wright has never been called the “C” word, the “S” word, or the “F” word. Why then doesn’t Pastor Wright stick up for all of the downtrodden when he is God Damning the USA? Is the poor treatment of black people the only sin discussed in his bible? Perhaps he should be called the “S” word (selfish) or the “B” word (bigoted) or the “F” word (fanatic). A selfish, bigoted, fanatic. See how that works? He rants about the government creating the AIDS virus to kill black people, yet will be the first one to stand in his pulpit and denounce Homosexuals based on some warped biblical translation/belief. I guess he believes that Gays and everybody else, who suffers from this horrible disease, deserve it? I would like to hear what all of the candidates have to say about that.
We are living in an exciting time. Our entire lives have brought us to this point. We have an African American and a woman running for President of the United States. Inequality is finally being talked about.
The real question here is, “How is the United States going to fix this?”
Do any of the candidates dare bring the issue of inequality to the forefront of this campaign?
Do any of the candidates dare bring up all of the taboo subjects that truly divide this nation and find a fair way to deal with all of them?
Do any of the candidates dare to stand up for the separation of church and state and make laws based on the freedoms stated in the constitution of this great country instead of what the religious zealots say?
Probably not, because to do so you will really need to take an in-depth look at all of the ways this country is divided, not just 1.
I say Let’s Do It!