Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gerson's Dose of Unreality

Although President Obama is an excellent speaker, one thing has been conspicuously lacking from his speeches: the takeaway. While G.W. and his speechwriters, by all accounts I've seen, would work on little catch phrases and sound bites to be replayed on the news and radio, Obama's speeches seem to go in the opposite direction. So while the phrasing quoted by Michael Gerson is a bit skewed, it's fair to observe,
James Fallows of the Atlantic says, "I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. . . . Often they're not even that 'well written,' in a fancy-phrasemaking sense." And further: "Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given."
It's not just in the TV (or radio) era, with this generation's brand of dismal mainstream media coverage, that makes a "good sound bite" valuable. If you think back to the "great speeches" of history, you're probably only going to recall a few key phrases - and you may even realize that you've never even heard the entire speech. It's not a strong defense of Obama's speeches that there are no "gratuitous bids for Barletts" - even if clear, concise statements worthy of Bartletts aren't placed into a speech intentionally, they should nonetheless occasionally emerge from a series of strong speeches.

But Gerson's not content to criticize Obama's speaking skills - or should I say, the skill of Obama's speechwriters, perhaps for fear of being accused of petulance or professional jealousy - as usual, he has to jump the shark:
Unasked is the question: Why can't original thought and intellectual seriousness also be expressed in speeches that are well written, cliche-free, polished, inspiring and memorable?
Um, Michael, you wrote speeched for G.W. for... how many years was it? And you and your fellow speechwriters didn't come up with a single speech that could fit that bill. I have to tell you, it takes considerable nerve (or considerable lack of insight) to make such a statement in light of your demand for more Presidential "passion" - a repeat of Gerson's prior focus on a lame Republican Party talking point - when you're beloved former lord and master offered little beyond the cliché under similar circumstances. "You are either with us or against us"; "Wanted, dead or alive", "Axis of evil", "Bring 'em on", "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while".... And it remains the height of hypocrisy to complain of Obama's stern words in response to the "underwear bomber" without having said a peep about Bush's "I'm having a great, relaxing holiday here in Crawford" follow-up to Richard Reid's analogous attempt to take down an airline.

I'm far from the first to say this, but I don't want a President who hyperventilates over every incident, whether because he lacks control of his emotions or because he believes that an atmosphere of fear will serve him well come election time. Gerson claims to want that? Good for him. And perhaps that's what he told his ex-boss, right after G.W.'s detached, narcissistic follow-up to the shoe bombing incident. Gerson's advice to his former boss would apparently have sounded something like this:
What our party, um, I mean what the nation needs now is not a President who, several days after an attempted terrorist attack, wishes us Happy New Year, talks about his holiday and how relaxing it is to clear brush, to praise the FBI or to say that the system worked because some passengers saw what the guy on the plane was doing. Worse, you've allowed the guy to be charged as a civilian in federal court, yet you've said "we're now giving him a chance to tell us what he knows about terror and about Al Qaida" - are you trying to undermine Guantanamo, military tribunals, and "harsh interrogation". Look, even if you believe everything you said, believe that the shoe-bomber was no big deal, believe that we don't need to torture him, deny him access to lawyers, or try him in a military tribunal to find out what he knows, and believe that the system is working, it will work to your political advantage to ramp up the rhetoric - more passion, more inspiration of fear, and by all means, more clichés
That was then, this is now? Seriously, I'm sure that whenever G.W. responded to something like this with aplomb, somebody like Cheney was quick to grab him by the elbow and admonish him that he needed to ramp up the fear factor, with people like Gerson happy to write the new script. That, however, is not demonstrative of good leadership - quite the opposite.

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