Thursday, January 28, 2010
Mister Speaker [Mark Steyn]
I’d be interested to hear what Peter Robinson and the other professional speechywritey types round here think, but for me the President is pretty much a total bust as an orator. When Jay says below that he’s “a very, very good speaker,” he is in the sense that he’s a mellifluous baritone who’d sound very appealing if you needed a voiceover guy to read some vapid boilerplate for the bland travelogue before the movie on a long-haul flight. But as a persuasive salesman for policy he’s bad, and getting worse.
One problem, as Jay pointed out, is that upturned chin. Just as a matter of angles, it looks wrong on TV. So it would be a problem for Hillary or McCain or Ron Paul or whoever would have won. But it’s worse for Obama because it plays into the aloof-and-arrogant meme. I don’t know why he does it. Are the prompters notched up a hole too high? What’s the deal? Why doesn’t one of his supersmart advisers get out the wrench and lower them?
As to the content, I think there are several broad stylistic problems that, cumulatively, lead to a bigger one, identified by (of all people) The New York Times‘s Bob Herbert:
Mr Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted.
Why is that? Well, look at the SOTU opening. It’s eloquent, but in a cheesily generic way, as if one of his speechwriters was sent over to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of State of the Unions for Dummies:
They have done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility. And they have done so in the midst of war and depression; at moments of great strife and great struggle.
It’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable — that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements; our hesitations and our fears; America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, and one people.
It sounds like an all-purpose speech for President Anyone: We’ve met here in good times and bad, war and peace, prosperity and depression, Shrove Tuesday and Super Bowl Sunday, riding high in April, shot down in May. We’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing. Each time we find ourselves flat on our face, we pick ourselves up and get back in the race. That’s life, pause for applause . . .
There’s no sense that, even as platitudinous filler, it arises organically from who this man is. As mawkish and shameless as the Clinton SOTUs were, they nevertheless projected a kind of authenticity. With Obama, the big-picture uplift seems unmoored from any personal connection — and he’s not good enough to make it real. Same with all those municipal name-checks.
When he does say anything firm and declarative — the pro-business stuff at home, the pro-freedom stuff abroad — it’s entirely detached from any policy, any action, so it plays to the Bob Herbert trust issue. And, when he moves from the gaseous and general to the specific, he becomes petty and and thin-skinned and unpresidential. And, unlike the national security feints and 101 Historical Allusions For Public Speakers stuff, the petulance is all too obviously real.
So I think the Churchill/Lincoln/Henry V-at-Agincourt de nos jours is a total flopperoo, and Obama would do well to hire some writers who can create for him a plausible voice — not for my sake but for all the Bob Herberts and disillusioned Obama Girls out there.