Friday, September 07, 2012

Watching Barack Obama

Since I dipped my toe in the water last night with Bill Clinton, I felt obligated to watch President Obama tonight. Actually, I watched most of Joe Biden's speech as well.

In retrospect, it might have been a really good exercise for me to watch as many speeches as I could during both conventions, just to learn about speechmaking. A large part of the power and position held by people who have taken the podium in both conventions has arisen from their speechmaking. And paths that I have set myself upon will require me to be a skilled speechmaker.

Thank heavens for YouTube :)

I didn't intend to watch Joe Biden, I just walked into the room and he was on. His appearance, like most of either party's national convention, made me ask, "Why is this happening?" The extent of the show, the sheer number of speeches, mystifies me, and leaves me wondering about the real work of the convention. What are people doing there, between speeches, in one-on-one conversations and small groups? And why, oh why, must there be so much hoopla?

In his weekly column a couple of Sundays ago, my friend and former boss David M. Shribman, executive editor at the Post-Gazette, called the national conventions a waste of time and money, saying that in his years as a political correspondent, "not one decision of consequence was made in the 11 conventions I covered."

Nevertheless, the conventions lumber on, and we get speeches.

For my money, President Obama's speech tonight was not as good as Bill Clinton's. Simply put, Clinton's speech made more use of facts, while Obama's speech made more use of rhetoric, and I prefer the former.

Indeed, at times when President Obama stated specific facts, he echoed President Clinton. But I will guess that he echoed other people who have spoken at the convention this week as well, that all of the speeches together were intended to sound common themes (e.g., that this election offers "a choice between fundamentally different visions for the future"). And at other times, when he began to get into specifics, he was simply drowned out by the crowd chanting "Four more years!" or "U-S-A!"

(Interjection: the "U-S-A!" chant creeps me out, and the term "American exceptionalism" scared me out of my wits the very first time I heard it. I don't care who's speaking, when someone says something like - as President Obama did tonight - "We work harder and smarter than anyone else," I stop listening. Humans are humans, nations are collections of humans, and I consider it the height of hubris to believe that American humans are inherently superior to other humans. I do believe that the nation is based on some of the best ideas ever - ideas that have never been fully lived. But I also believe that much of its success has been due to either ruthlessness or luck, including the luck to stumble upon effective ways of doing things, like property law. None of that makes Americans better than other humans.)

My biggest disappointment was that Mr. Obama did not say what I wanted most to hear from him: "Voting for me is not enough. In order for me to succeed in my second term, you need to vote for Senators and Representatives who will support me in Congress."

All that said, the moments that worked best for me were moments of phrasing, and some of those moments were outstanding:

Referring to veterans returning from war: "No one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job..." (the sentence went longer, but was drowned out by the crowd.)

Referring to Messrs. Romney and Ryan: "My opponent and his running mate are - new to foreign policy." Delivered with perfect timing and inflection.

After saying that Romney said that he would not have ended the war in Iraq and won't say how he will end the war in Afghanistan, "I did and I will."

Towards the end, he really got my attention with, "We also believe in something called citizenship." The concept of citizenship intrigues me, and challenges me on almost a daily basis.

From there he moved into, in my view, increasingly powerful rhetoric (that is a compliment, not a criticism), harking back to his first appearance at the convention in 2004 and then his nomination speech in 2008, quoting his 2008 self as saying that the campaign "is not about me, it's about you," and re-sounding that campaign's theme of hope and change. And then he laid this on the crowd:

"My fellow citizens, you were the change."

I'm getting chills just typing that. Not even because I agree, but because it's so darn good.

Then he cited some changes have happened in the past four years, not as his achievements, but as victories by the people: "You're the reason (such and such happened). You did that."

Then he pulled out stories of individuals, like Samantha Garvey, the homeless teen who became an semifinalist in Intel's Science Talent Search, concluding each with "She/he gives me hope."

In full throttle, he declared, "Ours is a future filled with hope," and then launched into a closing that, in both language and delivery, sounded like...well, activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X may have said it best when he tweeted: "Is it Sunday already? Cause somebody's preachin."

"Yes, our path is harder but it leads to a better place..." After that, hearing him became harder, because the crowd was tearing up the place.

Yeah, he's still got it.

And here it is, in two parts:

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