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Oratory’s importance

interior-oratoryThis article was published in the Sunday Herald, on February 24, 2008.

Overexposure to the primary season makes even the best speeches sound dull. After three months of rhetoric for breakfast and oratory for tea, live from Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida and Maine, Barack Obama no longer inspires like he used to. Half an hour into his latest victory address, shortly after the fifth reference to “the change we seek” the remote control crept into my hand. But although I willed Obama to stop, I somehow couldn’t turn the television off.

Each time a state votes, the remaining candidates speak to their supporters and to the viewers at home. Tradition dictates that losers go first. The ability to give a gracious concession speech, thanking rivals for running a tough but fair campaign, has long been seen as a key political skill. After ten defeats in a row, one might think that Hillary Clinton would have mastered it by now.

On the night of her thumping in Wisconsin, Clinton did not even mention Obama by name, referring to him as “my opponent” and pointedly refusing to acknowledge his victory. Obama’s team repaid this breach of etiquette in kind, rushing him onto the stage long before she was finished. The networks soon switched over, denying Clinton free airtime and providing an instant contrast between her stiff, policy-heavy stump speech and Obama’s transformative appeal.

The crowd of 20,000 people crammed into a basketball stadium in Houston whooped and hollered as if he were Moses returned from the mount with an eleventh commandment prescribing free beer on Saturdays.

Clinton’s audience in Ohio cheered too, of course, but it sounded forced, a response to the telegraphed cues in her cadence, which rose to a shout every other line. In small groups, she has a gift for empathy that Obama lacks, but at rallies, broadcast everywhere, her frozen smile and strident tone are costing her votes.

In the era of You Tube clips and emailed spin statements, oratory is no longer supposed to count for much. But it has been the unrelenting focus of the Clinton campaign all week, as they attempt to portray Obama as “all hat and no cattle.”

The theme is nothing new – Clinton has been borrowing Mario Cuomo’s observation that “you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose” for months – but the criticism has become noticeably more pointed of late. “Speeches don’t put food on the table” is her refrain, as she bids to become “a president who relies not just on words but on work.”

Clinton’s backers have been more direct. In Ohio, Machinists Union President Tom Buffenbarger declared that Obama is “not just a trained thespian, he’s a terrific shadow boxer… All the right moves, all the right combinations, all the right footwork, but he never steps into the ring. He walks away from the fight.”

When Clinton accused Obama of plagiarism, for stealing a whole passage verbatim from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, it backfired badly. It was meant to reinforce the perception that Obama lacks substance, but because Patrick is the national co-chair of his campaign, Obama’s blatant copying was brushed off as two friends sharing ideas – and largely accepted as such by the press.

The accusation played straight into a tired but effective dichotomy that Obama returns to again and again, in which Clinton represents the “old kind of politics” he seeks to transcend. It also drew attention to the text that he lifted, which was much more illuminating than the act of appropriation itself.

His address in Milwaukee had echoed Patrick note for note: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words? Just speeches?” It takes some nerve to compare yourself to Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the message that eloquence matters was a powerful one. No wonder he pinched it.

On Thursday night, Clinton was back where her supporters want her, facing Obama one on one at a debate in Austin, Texas. There is no question the format suits her better, but aside from a closing statement that was both vulnerable and authoritative, her performance failed to deliver the game-changing contrasts she needs. Obama will never match her masterful command of policy detail, but neither is he as hesitant and aloof as he used to be.

In Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin, Obama proved his candidacy can attract demographic groups that were once solidly Clinton’s, making it harder for her to dismiss his success as “the cult of personality.” The race is not over yet, but unless she can beat him in Texas and trounce him in Ohio on March 4, a true concession speech will be called for.