When I wanted to blog about Senator Barack Obama’s watershed speech “The American Promise” he delivered to the Democratic National Convention tonight, I wanted to scrutinize and critique the hell out of it.
I wanted to be like the talking heads and pundits who analyze every phrase for double meanings.
I wanted to be a dick and say he talks in high platitudes and that everything he says is raw bullshit designed to wheedle the common masses out of four more years.
I wanted to…but I’m not.
Though the pundits predictably gushed at the speech, including Pat Buchanan – Buchanan for Christ’s sake – I have to say that the criticisms Obama’s speech was nothing but kabuki theater for the gullible plebs hooked into muttering the mantra of the “c-word” (that’s “change” and not the other one), were unfounded.
The speech was deftly executed, well-organized and concise in preserving major themes and effectively communicating them. Obama’s speech was also delivered on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and Obama used the anniversary as a rallying cry to inspire voters to support him. Obama, the first black man (technically half black, half white but who’s keeping score) nominated as the candidate for a major party, talked about his family and personal history, addressed criticisms of his experience, defused criticisms from Republicans on his ability to lead, and provided some specifics on what all this “change” business actually was.
The Republican's biggest criticism is that Obama is a hollow man, espousing words such as “change” and “hope” with no real context or definition of his policies. He’s all fluff, no substance. A young candidate that inspires the MTV generation. The acceptance speech did address this, as well as criticisms levied by Republicans that the Illinois Senator is too inexperienced. Obama responded by evoking Kennedy and Reagan, drawing a comparison to their elections as the people’s desire to invest in something new and untried.
Obama, as well as every other Democrat who spoke at the convention, acknowledged John McCain’s military service. McCain is a nice guy and good soldier, they said, but he’s dead wrong in his agreement with George Bush. I guarantee at their convention the Republicans won’t be as gracious to Obama, and deride the Democrats en masse as the Party of the Great Horned Beast.
Obama’s praise might have been by design. Flatter your opponent and put him on the defensive.
One thing I picked up was the parallel between Obama’s speech and the Aaron Sorkin movie The American President. Some parts seemed eerily similar in word choice and tone, as if his staff rented the movie to inspire the speechwriters and candidate before the convention. Here are some examples:
Obama: It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.
Movie: Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it.
Obama: The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.
Movie: This is a time for serious men, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.
Despite this homage to great political cinema, the speech was more than the emotional, heartstring-tugging fare delivered at party conventions. It was a different Obama speech, one with gravity and weight.
To be expected from a Democratic speech, it was heavy on domestic issues. The speech also touched on fighting terrorists and improving America’s standing globally. Democrats always poll low on War on Terror and national security questions, and it was refreshing to hear a Democrat talk about committing troops. Obama cast Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq as misguided and pushed committing troops into Afghanistan to deal with Al-Qaeda directly.
Obama might be this young, charismatic figure that bridges the gap between the generations, a savior/messiah figure that comes along once in a generation, someone who can manipulate the media to his advantage and deliver a concise message that resonates with voters. He might be, as I’ve heard people say, “the real deal”, someone who evokes Kennedy or Bill Clinton, a leader of the cult of personality who really wants the country to prosper and lift us out of this vale of evil and place us on a mountaintop of prosperity and purpose.
Or the guy might just be another snake oil selling charlatan, a Pied Piper of Hamlin leading the rats to the voting booths with sweet music and fairy-tale promises of hope and change.
One thing I do know is that the convention speech was unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a long time. Bush is about as inspiring as a wet dishrag. I don’t think McCain has the charisma or personal qualities to attract people that Obama has. The right wants to argue about patriotism, whether Obama is fit to serve and what an elitist he is. If the Republicans don’t produce more substance and back off their tactics of fear and smear and have McCain actually challenge and inspire Americans by offering to take the country in a clearly-defined direction, then their campaign could easily flounder.
One thing Obama’s speech did was accuse Republicans of waging a campaign attacking Obama's stances as superficial and his policies as pie-in-the-sky. Obama countered with a terse response that was probably the only time in recent memory I think a political figure was openly honest:
“I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.”
Obama put McCain on the defensive. Now it’s up to Republicans at their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul to present their vision for America and McCain to outline the reasons why people should vote for him.
Rest assured, America will be listening.