CAPITAL CULTURE: If Obama’s a brilliant speaker, why can’t anybody remember his words?By Hillel Italie, AP
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
CAPITAL CULTURE: Critics assess Obama’s speeches
NEW YORK — As a supporter of Barack Obama for president, former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen welcomed the young Democrat as a winning, Kennedy-esque orator who didn’t bore the public with “five-point programs” and lectures more fit for campuses than for campaigns.
But as Obama prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address, Sorensen wonders if the president hasn’t become more like the politicians he supposedly displaced.
“He is still a very eloquent, articulate speaker,” Sorensen says. “He is clearly well informed on all matters of public policy, sometimes, frankly, a little too well informed. And as a result, some of the speeches are too complicated for typical citizens and very clear to university faculties and big newspaper editorial boards.”
Authors, editors and speechwriters interviewed by The Associated Press agree that Obama is indeed a gifted and effective speechmaker, able to set a new tone with the Middle East in his Cairo speech or to turn public opinion, at least temporarily, in favor of changing the health care system after his address to Congress.
But even admirers have a hard time remembering what he actually says.
Ted Widmer, who edited an anthology of political speeches for the Library of America, praised Obama for his “masterful” style, but could not cite a specific line the president said. Similar observations were made by Jeff Shesol, David Frum and Harry C. McPherson, who wrote speeches for presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson, respectively.
“The speech he made in Cairo — I remember the intelligence, the breadth and the reasonableness,” McPherson says. “But I can’t tell you, and this is one of the shortcomings of the kind of speech he makes — I can’t quote anything, or cite anything, off the top of my head.”
“His speeches can go for pages without applause lines, making comprehensive arguments about particular issues,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton. “And though people may not remember particular lines or phrases from every speech, when he is done speaking, people always get a sense of who the president is and exactly where he is coming from.”
A distinctive phrase can define, or make history, like Franklin Roosevelt’s calling Dec. 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy” because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or President Ford’s declaration, upon taking office after Richard Nixon had resigned, that “our long national nightmare” was over. President Kennedy’s inaugural call to “ask what you can do for your country” helped inspire an era of public service, while President Reagan’s demand that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down that wall,” the Berlin Wall, was a climactic moment of the Cold War.
“I think there are memorable lines in certain speeches (by Obama),” says presidential speechwriter Adam Frankel, who started writing for Obama when he was a candidate. “But what makes him unique as a speaker is not necessarily a single line but the overall story he tells and the seriousness with which he tells it and the trust he puts in people to understand a complicated argument.”
Frum and others warn that a speechwriter can be so eager to come up with a memorable quote that the overall text suffers. Obama’s preference for sustain explanation over snappy summaries is a good thing, Widmer says, because it means he’s treating the public as adults.
“Sound bites help people to remember a speech and think about the larger message of a speech, but they become a distortion if you only remember the fragment,” Widmer says. “You can end up with a situation like the presidential primaries where you’ve got eight people in an Iowa cornfield, all trying to have a striking single sentence in the middle of a speech.”
Geoffrey O’Brien, editor of the next edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, says that so far he has 12 Obama citings planned, but just one since he became president (though he says that could well change).
The passage he wants to include from Obama’s presidency comes from his inaugural speech, when Obama called the United States “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He could not immediately cite any other lines from Obama’s presidential speeches.
“Obama is very strong at sort of coolly laying out issues, which may not be memorable, but is effective,” O’Brien says. “When he was running for president, he had to draw on a more impassioned style. He was addressing huge crowds of people.”
O’Brien says that when he talks about Obama with young people the phrase they remember is “Yes, We Can,” his campaign slogan.
Fred R. Shapiro, who edits the Yale Book of Quotations, mentioned a few phrases from Obama’s inaugural speech that could make the next edition some years from now. He cites Obama’s insistence that “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” in the fight against terrorism, and that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
But Shapiro doesn’t think that any of his presidential statements have caught on widely with the public, certainly not at the level of then-candidate Obama’s private observation in 2008 that small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion.”
“The lines I mentioned from his inauguration have not become very famous,” Shapiro says. “And if they’re in the next Yale Book of Quotations, it will be more because they were borderline choices than because they were overwhelmingly clear-cut candidates.”
No presidential speech since President Kennedy’s inaugural, which has 11 mentions in the most recent Yale book, has been so quoted. A Kennedy-Sorensen trademark is chiasmus — what speechwriters call “reversible raincoats,” in which the second half of the phrase is a variation on the first half, such as “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
The stature of Kennedy’s speech is one reason it hasn’t been matched. Shesol recalls an agreement among Clinton speechwriters that reversible raincoats should be avoided because Kennedy and Sorensen had so perfected them.
“I think it’s very important for people to remember the words. Words have power. A successful speech will resonate and phrases will provide a kind of power in the near term and the longer term,” Shesol said. “But, ultimately, it’s important to any president to be able to make continually clear who he is, what he believes and where he wants to go.”
Thurston Clarke, author of “Ask Not,” a well-regarded book on President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, wonders if Obama isn’t still reacting to criticism during the 2008 campaign that he was too good with words. His main opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, cited a quote from former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo that “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late attorney general and New York senator, worried about the limits of “poetry or lofty language.”
“I think he’s scared of appearing too polished,” Clarke said. “I think it scared him from giving a great inaugural address and I think that was a huge mistake because no president gets an audience again like he does for his inaugural address.”
Allegations that Obama is holding back are “not true,” said Burton, the White House spokesman. “That speech (Kennedy’s) was 50 years ago, only underscoring the point that these iconic moments are so few and far between. But knowing a couple lines is not the best measure of a speech and certainly not of the effectiveness of a president.”
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