Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bounding Down the Stairs

Is Barack Obama a "speaker of genius" ? Or is it true that, "For all the hoopla about Mr. Obama's speech, traditional political rhetoric is a declining art" ? We ask these questions today, analyze several view points, and provide historical context by harkening back to a few of the finer political speeches in recent American history. Politicians today rightfully speak to the issues at the forefront of voter's minds, and in a manner they understand . As a Web publisher, I constantly struggle with the reality that our readers scan instead of reading, and that the hallmark of good communication is that it is understood.

But I do miss big speeches full of big ideas, and there should be room for them as well. John Kennedy delivered them regularly; so did Ronald Reagan. And there have not been very many since. And I hope that brilliant, memorably eloquent political speeches are not permanently in our past, but merely in a down cycle.

George Pataki read the Gettysburg Address at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of 9.11. Other elected officials read other historic addresses. And most saw it as altogether fitting and proper that they should do this. Indeed, some NY Democrats, seeing they would have no voice at the ceremony, considered marking it in their own way - by also reading the Gettysburg Address, in a television commercial.

But Robert Polner of Newsday, wrote that the"appropriation of a distant generation's tragedy strikes me as lame and uninspired"and asked why George Pataki wouldn't "offer a new Gettysburg address instead, one that he crafts himself from the heart and not from a hired speechwriter?" Andrei Cherney, a speechwriter for Al Gore, writing in the Washington Post, implored the leaders to "add to [the] fabric" of American History, not "hide under it," and said that "[f]earing a miss if they swing for the fences, they have decided to bunt." In an earlier Newsday article, Columbia History Professor Eric Foner noted that "Lincoln...did not have public opinion polls telling him what to say, and didn't worry about what would be the sound bite on the evening news.”

And maybe that's the real problem with political campaigns today. Every word is planned in advance, with an eye on the polls and the evening news. I'm not troubled when a candidate chokes up when asked about the burdens of a long campaign. I am troubled by the likelihood that it was planned the night before. When Ronald Reagan first met with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's team carefully planned it. Gorbachev's limousine would pull up to the Geneva chateau where they were meeting, and Reagan would stand regally at the top of the steps, letting Gorbachev look up to him. But seconds after Gorbachev's car stopped, the much-older Reagan bounded down the stairs, helped Gorbachev from the car, and slipped his hand under Gorbachev's arm to support him. A Soviet aide later said "I left like we lost the game during the first movement...We started with the wrong move." And so maybe that is what I really miss - politicians who are willing to swing for the fences, to tear up the script, and bound down the stairs.

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