Sunday, August 31, 2008

Safire: Obama's acceptance speech is "Hype"

Bill Safire, who is one of the few men of letters who has compiled and edited collections of speeches and is a speech expert had a little something to say about Barack Obama's 2008 DNC acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium.

The New York Times
August 31, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
The Audacity of Hype

BY choosing the venue of a vast outdoor stadium as John Kennedy did
for his “new frontier” acceptance, and by speaking on the anniversary
of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address, Barack Obama — whose
claim to fame is an ability to move audiences with his words —
deliberately invited comparison with two of the most memorable
speeches of our recent history.

What a mistake.

A speaker must first ask: what is the best setting to make close
contact with the person I want to reach? In this day and age, it is
not a huge throng wildly cheering on cue. On the contrary, the target
is the individual American voter watching a TV or computer screen at
home, accustomed to looking over the shoulders of elected
representatives, in colorful convention assembled, selecting the
party’s nominee.

Instead, Obama’s handlers offered the political version of “American
Idol” — the audacity of hype. On the 50-yard line of the football
field, at a reported cost of $6 million, they erected a plywood
Parthenon, its fake Grecian columns suggesting the White House. At the
end, not a traditional balloon drop in a contained hall — enjoyable
hoopla — but a fireworks display in the heavens over a mass of
humanity in a blizzard of confetti, all too like the collectivist
fantasy that opened and closed the Beijing Olympics.

To present what? In a speech aptly titled “The American Promise,”
Obama promised to “end this war in Iraq responsibly,” even as it is
already ending responsibly. He promised in a militant phrase not
merely to end but to “finish the fight” (meaning to win) in
Afghanistan. In one catchall sentence, Obama promised to defeat
“terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate
change and disease.” Because the charge that he would raise taxes
obviously nettles him, he promised to “eliminate capital gains taxes
for the small businesses” run by obedient high-tech executives, and to
“cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families.”

In promising to “end our dependence on oil from the Middle East,” he
stopped pandering for a moment to oppose the majority of Americans
urging we increase supply by drilling for oil here: “Understand that
drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution.” That is
phrased with wiggle room to let him go along with necessary drilling,
provided stockholders in oil companies are punished.

Belatedly, Obama did what he could to lower expectations for this
speech, saying it would be “workmanlike” with no high rhetoric. But
his and his writing team’s product lacked the freshness of his 2004
convention stunner, the winning modesty of his 2006 Gridiron Club
address (“Thank you for all the generous advance coverage ... when I
actually do something, we’ll let you know”) and the grace of his
gentle disassociation from his longtime pastor this summer.

His stump speech in the primaries was finely honed; the delivery of
his televised victory speeches showed a thrilling mastery of the
teleprompter. By becoming the first African-American to win a major
party’s presidential nomination, he made history, but he failed to
come up with a historic acceptance address. Having set a Stevensonian
standard for stirring eloquence, he cannot get by with workmanlike

“Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country,” he cried
angrily. “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe.” Who’s
telling him that? By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw
man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book. He promised to
“restore our moral standing” (shades of Jimmy Carter) “so that America
is once more the last, best hope for” (Lincoln wrote of) “all who are
called to the cause of freedom” (shades of George W. Bush). But does
he apply that idealist “cause of freedom” to the invaded Georgians? He
didn’t say.

Goaded by increasingly worried advisers, he turned personal and mean.
“If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament,
and judgment, to serve as the next commander in chief, that’s a debate
I’m ready to have.” That use of “temperament,” accent on the “temper,”
was a throwback to the slur at Barry Goldwater as “trigger happy.” (It
worked for Lyndon Johnson.)

Then came a strange one: “John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow
bin Laden to the gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave
where he lives.” What’s that supposed to mean — that McCain is a
coward, unwilling to lead a charge into the hills of Pakistan? That
Obama would? Most post-speech TV analysis, blown away by the
sky-piercing fireworks, ignored that low blow; nor was attention paid
to his replay of the charge that “naysayers” are motivated by more
than his politics: “I don’t fit the typical pedigree.”

It was only human for Obama to show his irritation with McCain’s
successful “celebrity” spot zinging his rock-star reception by the
Berlin 200,000, and Obama’s exploitation of Phil Gramm’s “nation of
whiners” gaffe was a legitimate political pop. However, treating as
serious McCain’s joking definition of “middle class” as earning $5
million a year was a bit much from a candidate who derogated
working-class Hillary Clinton supporters as “bitter,” claiming “they
cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like

Supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin (did I mention I’m one?)
were glad to hear Obama reach into the John Edwards playbook to fan
resentment that turned independent voters away from the Democratic
ticket four years ago. He could not resist his version of the old
class warfare, “two Americas” pitch. And he revealed his own promise
to tighten management of the economy from Washington as never before
with a soothing banality: “Our government should work for us, not
against us. It should help us, not hurt us.”

A poignant reminder of the Original Obama came in the speech’s moving
peroration. His evocation of Martin Luther King’s dream of
togetherness at the Lincoln Memorial was beautiful and timely.

A stern editor could have improved the 4,500-word acceptance by
cutting a thousand words of populist boilerplate and partisan-pleasing
shots that offend centrists. But the die was cast before the writing
began. The pretension of the fake Grecian temple setting clashed with
the high-decibel, rock-star format and overwhelmed the history
implicit in the event. Ancient Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

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