Friday, April 10, 2009

On Obama's speaking style (hint: o-v-e-r-r-a-t-e-d)

An excerpt from a chatty e-mail to a friend who had referred to the President as "the Obamanable One":

About Obama I generally say very little, except to make private use of the ample comic potential he provides as long as one can distract oneself from the devastating consequences likely to ensue from his conceit, naivete, and genuinely staggering ignorance. "The Obamanable One" is pretty good, though. I'll share with you a couple of things that I hope will allow you to extract some gallows humor out of the appalling situation...

First, is a riddle from my son, brought home from school in the middle of the presidential campaign:

Q. What's the difference between Obama and Osama?
A. It's the BS.

Second, there's a conversation I had with a close Pakistani friend who thinks Obama is the bee's knees. Obama was on television giving a speech at the time. Now, I've watched a lot of politicians give speeches over the years, and they have tended since the invention of the teleprompter to all look more or less the same: the politician glances at the teleprompter for as long as it takes him to be reminded of the contents of his next paragraph, and then for as long as that paragraph lasts in his memory, he works the crowd and the camera. In particular, ever since Kennedy/Nixon, all politicians know the importance of looking into the television viewer's eyes -- which is to say, straight into the camera -- and projecting sincerity and concern and whatever else he's hoping to b.s. the viewer into believing the politician feels. And when Obama first burst onto the scene, all any Democrat could talk about were three things. (A) How Satan had a lot to learn from Dubya about this whole Master Of Evil schtick (not all Democrats were into this but, very noticeably, Obama himself played to it shamelessly). (B) How it would prove that America didn't care about race any more if we were to elect a black dude, a proposition of whose inherent self-contradiction its proponents were blissfully unaware, even as they babbled incessantly about how cool it was that Obama was black, and about whether it was more important for America to elect a black dude in penance for racism or to elect a chick in penance for sexism. (C) What a great speaker Obama was.

Now, I don't have a very high opinion of Dubya, but that's because I think he inherited from his family some very foolish assumptions that had highly unfortunate consequences, not because I think he is an evil man; so (A) didn't interest me. And I genuinely don't give a rat's ass what color a man is, and think it says just as much evil about a country when that country elects a man because he's black as it would should that country refuse to elect him for the same reason; so (B) was of no interest to me either. But (C) caught my interest...up until I saw the man speak.

What struck me forcibly about Obama's speeches were the following:

1. He had a fascinating rhetorical technique in which, whenever he appealed to "victims" that the Democratic Party was going to help (that is, by taking money away from other people and giving it to the "victims"), everything was concrete and highly personal. He would pick a specific single mother who was a victim of tragedy, for example, and tell her story with lots of details. But then when he turned to the traditional Democratic pasttime of demonizing those Americans who dare to be more successful than is the Democratic Party's base, all of the accusations and bitterness were there -- but they were carefully depersonalized. The attacks were bitter and vicious and were clearly intended to stir up anger and resentment -- but it was never "evil rich people" who were keeping Democratic voters poor and hungry, as it would have been in the past speeches of such notable Franciscan practicioners of poverty and simplicity of life as, say, the Kennedy brothers. No, when Obama was stirring up the bitterness pot, the bad guys were never people; instead they were "the forces of intolerance," or something similarly impersonal. Thus we had the fascinating spectacle of a man whose message was in large part, "You've been getting screwed by evil rich Republicans and I'll make it stop," i.e., an appeal to bitterness, but who in the very act of presenting that message, presented himself -- successfully! -- as the candidate of reconciliation and healing, in defiance not only of his own entire life history, but even in defiance of the actual content of the very speeches in which he spoke of the need for healing. The student of rhetoric within me gives him a standing ovation; that was a helluva trick he pulled off (though it does not speak at all well for the intelligence of those taken in by it). The moralist and patriot within me naturally has a rather different reaction.

2. He seems to me to be a one-note pony: I've never seen him give a speech in which he didn't seem to be posing for a bust. The chin is elevated slightly in a pose of self-conscious nobility; the voice is self-consciously serious and self-important; and when he attempts to be humorous it falls painfully flat. If, like a great many Democrats, you believe that George W. Bush represented the end of all civilization worthy of the name, and you think that every speech of the President should be the next Gettysburg Address...why, then, you probably liked Obama's speeches, because he clearly thinks that each of his speeches is the next Gettysburg Address. Those of us who are old enough to remember Reagan know better.

3. But the thing that really caught my attention was that Obama never looks at the camera. He looks at a forty-five degree angle or so off to his right, and then he swings back to look at a forty-five degree angle or so off to his left. Then he looks back to his right. Then back to his left. He's practically a metronome. And he's always looking at the same elevation, have you noticed? He never looks down at the people in the front row, never elevates his eyes to the "ceiling fans," as I once heard a pop singer call the fans in the back row of the balcony. For a long time I couldn't figure out what was up with that -- right up until I saw how astonishingly badly he floundered in any venue in which he is forced to ad-lib rather than use his teleprompter. And the penny finally dropped: Obama reads his whole speech word-for-word from the teleprompters. He looks at the teleprompter on his right, and then he swings back to look at the teleprompter on his left. Then he looks back at the teleprompter on his right. Then back to the one on his left.

Now, Dubya is never going to be mistaken for a great orator. But even Dubya knew his own speeches well enough to take his eyes away from the teleprompter every now and then and look at the camera. So now I get the hugest kick out of watching Obama give a speech, because I just watch his head move to the right, and then to the left, and then to the right...and I laugh myself silly.

At any rate, I was sitting with Novera (my Pakistani friend) while Obama was speaking, and I mentioned this teleprompter thing. "Just watch," I said after explaining it to her, and then I did a simple play-by-play: "See, he's looking at the one on his the the the left..."

After about ten seconds an incredulous Novera burst out, "Oh my God, you're right!"

" the the left..."

Then in tones of mingled amusement and outrage, Novera demanded to know why I had insisted on showing her that. "I always LIKED watching his speeches, and now I can't see anything but his head swinging back and forth between those teleprompters -- you've ruined it for me!"

At this point I felt I had earned the right to cackle in evil triumph, and I accordingly exercised that right. Then I told her one of the very few jokes that I've ever made up on my own rather than stealing from somebody else -- another Obama riddle, as it happens:

Q: What did Barack say to Michelle at the very height of passion on their first night together in the White House?
A: Nothing. The teleprompter was broken.

Well, that's enough uncharity for now, I suppose...

By the way, I think it's only fair to say that I'm not the only person who caught onto the "forces of intolerance" rhetorical trick. (I mean, it was an obvious trick, of course; the fact that Obama felt safe, and was safe, in using it, is proof that the American public knows nothing about rhetorical technique and therefore has no defense against even the more obvious tricks. There were probably hundreds of people across the country who noticed what he was doing; unfortunately there were a couple of hundred million other people who had no idea.) I think I remember seeing on some other political blog -- the Corner, perhaps? -- a comment about this trick of Obama's, and thinking, "Yes! That's EXACTLY what the little slimeball does! Thank God somebody else sees it." So if I happen to remember where I saw it I'll come back and retroactively hat-tip 'em.