Perhaps it is because I make my living with words that I am more attuned to their meaning and power, but what has struck me most forcefully during the Obama campaign and in these days leading up to his inauguration is his powerful grasp of the utterly vague phrase.
“Yes, we can” means anything the listener wants it to be. “Hope” is also subject to all manner of interpretation. Maybe I’m just cynical—and I have earned it—but this kind of oratory is the politician’s stock in trade. That and, of course, promises.
When President-elect Obama says that he wants to restore the world’s respect for the United States I think he is talking more to the sense of weariness that Americans feel having to carry the burden of protecting the world from communist and Islamofascist predators. If that sounds like right-wing nut talk, think about Russia’s invasion this year of neighboring Georgia or the pirates plying their trade out of Somalia, the recent attacks in Mumbai, the continuing bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
I think, too, that most of us have grown tired of President Bush’s fairly clownish behavior. His lack of oratorical skills has become the fodder for Saturday Night Live and many topical comedians who I suspect are going to miss him for that reason alone.
Obama stands in stark contrast to Bush in much the same way his calm presence and command of the language made John McCain look fairly pathetic during the few debates they held. There is, of course, the age factor. Obama attracted tons of younger people to his campaign and that should strike no one as odd.
In the end, Republicans were more resigned to McCain than enthusiastic, even if he did turn out to be their choice through the primaries. Imagine for a moment a younger, more articulate Mitt Romney as the candidate? Only the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin breathed any life into the McCain campaign.
Much as was the case in the 1960s when a young, vigorous John F. Kennedy was sworn into office and inspired people with his oratory, I think Obama’s inaugural speech will repeat that performance.
What we tend to forget is that JFK did not impress Nikita Krushchev when they met, blundered badly with the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, and set the stage for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with a mission creep that began with U.S. military advisors.
Oratory is a powerful weapon. Winston Churchill kept the British people’s spirits up during the darkest days of the Blitz over London and he inspired them to fight on when the United States at last joined the war. Certainly, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his skills brilliantly as well. His “fireside chats” surely made Americans feel they could get through the Great Depression.
However the Depression was not overcome by anything the government did. It was World War Two that energized American industry to meet the test in two theatres of war.
Oratory has its limits. Not too soon after Obama delivers his inaugural speech, Americans are going to be expecting some kind of action to address the sputtering economy and, if it turns out that his administration wants to throw millions at so-called “green jobs” and ignore the failure of banking institutions to begin lending again, the tide of unhappiness will rise and all the inspirational catch phrases will not make it recede.
If his supporters conclude that he, like the Wizard of Oz, is really “the man behind the curtain” creating an illusion, his rhetorical skills will not be able to hide the fact that the federal government that created the present ills is unable to end them.
Editor’s Note: Alan passed away on June 15, 2015. He will be greatly missed
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