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Political Dozers

If you are well-disposed to the American political orientation and have sufficiently lowered your expectations, then the convention speeches might be fun.

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One of the remarkable characteristics of contemporary American politics is that the country has no real orators. Just try listening to your Congressional representative or senator. They are about as lousy at speaking as your local news anchor. For any Indian familiar with politics, speeches are a mainstay of politics. So it is with most parliamentary democracies in the world. In lobbyist-driven democracies, however, one does not have to be good at public speaking. It is enough to be a schmoozer.

The Democratic National Convention was no exception. Perhaps this convention was unique, because the central character of its drama, the Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama, is known for his speeches and, to some, mainly for them.

 
Now speeches are at the core of conventions. There are fights about who is allowed to speak and when. Speakers argue over who gets the primetime slot and in what order. The pecking order determines how much the nominee likes you and considers you in his court. The pre-convention maneuvering is always dramatic. Political lives are made from these assignments. As we know, Barack Obama built his fame with his keynote speech in Boston at the 2004 convention. Some comeuppance! Bill Clinton's speech in 1988 was a major dozer and Mario Cuomo's speech in 1984 is still considered to be one of the best political speeches of all times.

Most convention speeches are an exercise in tolerance of your faculties and sensory abilities. They are rote, non-descript and may well be used one day to teach how not to give speeches. "Speechifying" is not an element of the American political process. There is no George Fernandes here. There are no fiery union leaders either. If the primary qualification for a politician is the ability to raise money, then it is understandable that public speaking is not their forte.

Senators. whose lot is excruciatingly dull to begin with, have re-defined boring in many ways. If you have watched the "question" hour in the British Parliament - check out C-SPAN sometime - you will realize what quick wit and alertness of mind do to political speeches. If you are well-disposed to the American  orientation and have sufficiently lowered your expectations, then the convention speeches might be fun.

 
Sen. John Kerry, fresh from his ballistic speech in Boston in 2004, honed perhaps by the best speechwriters, could not muster anything as good; his senate staff is clearly not adept at this. With each charge against his fellow Sen. John McCain, he was lurching ahead impatiently to deliver his punch lines. There was no build up and he could not command any punch.

Another fellow senator, Joe Biden, demonstrated just how different it is to speak from behind the bench than it is from the podium. The crowd had waited for him all evening. He followed Bill Clinton who declared that he "loved Joe Biden." But his main lines, punched with "more of the same" confused the audience. They were chanting with him in the first unfinished sentence and then wandering around with the next. The speakers in the spectacle are often saved by the enthusiasm that is already in the audience. Their energy carries you forward, but the more you kill it, the worse it gets.

After months of campaigning and two senate campaigns, Hillary Clinton is somewhat of a speaker. She is far less spontaneous and has learned very little, except self-confidence from her accomplished spouse. She is most effective when speaking angrily about how women should mobilize and how they need to "keep going," recalling the fight of the women sojourners in historical terms. Otherwise, she carries the day by who she is, by little tricks of delivering her lines slowly.

With his years of training and perhaps by working with his earlier boss, Al Gore has taken on a more relaxed approach to his speeches. It was a delight to read an advance copy of his speech and then watch him deliver it with verve and energy. Ted Kennedy saves himself by shouting the lines that he feels strongly about. The rhythm and the energy are gone.

 
That brings us to the finalists of this event. Despite the billing, Bill Clinton's speech was by far the best of the lot. There wasn't much in it politically or programmatically. But it was a simple speech, delivered with great command over its contents and his audience. In columnist David Broder's words, there was "theme music" to his speech. He loved his party, he was backing Obama and emphasized that we ought to govern with a measured and modest use of our power in the world.

Clinton makes his case like a charmer, but hits you with simple bullets that you can take home. The idea that the United States should refrain from showing "the power of our example, rather than an example of our power" was deliriously effective and sufficient enough for the rest of the world to understand. Diplomatic, measured, warm, seductive and charming, he did all he could to wipe away the bitterness of the primary season to remind us why he is one of the most appealing leader from this country to the rest of the world. And, we have to consider him one of the best speakers of his generation.

The climax was, of course, the speech by Barack Obama. For someone who talks in interviews slowly, deliberately and often thinking too much before saying anything, he lights up when speaking before a crowd. He delivers superbly. Smooth he is not, but he is forceful and articulate. He is better at getting angry; this time in INVESCO field he was more a union leader than a political reformer. Nothing wrong with that, as we need some of each! A well-written speech, delivered with grace and force, it rose to the occasion and drew the battle lines for Democrats.

His lines about "enough is enough" and "America, don't look back now" will be remembered by historians. In each of these lines, there were hidden two levels of meaning, with a call to end the corruption and thoughtlessness of the past eight years as much as an appeal to end racial intolerance to elect a man with a "different pedigree" that he does not share with other presidents.
Eloquent yes, easy no! That may well be Obama's problem, if he happens to lose. He is too articulate, too brainy and there is much of the faculty lounge talk in him.

 
The event at INVESCO field commemorated the 45th anniversary of the historic speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As the TV coverage of the event made clear, Blacks were excited to have Obama accept the nomination of his party, the first Black candidate of a major party ever to run for the highest office. It was a fitting tribute to the earlier struggles and to the Civil Rights leader. But professor as he is, Obama made a reference to Rev. King as a "preacher from Georgia," which it is hard to see, how a peasant and a common dude in middle America can identify with. Very much a cerebral appeal by Obama, isn't it? It was like appealing to a non-Christian crowd and referring to Jesus Christ as a carpenter from Jerusalem.

And that is indeed the story here. If we elect him, we will have a brainy man in the White House, which is an assuring change. If we don't, it will be because his smarts are lost on most people.  

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Politics | Magazine | December 2008

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