Sunday, 11 November 2012

Better not to speechify too sweetly

‘My fellow Americans. The road is long. The path is steep. Our legs are short. Our sandals are silly. But we shall overcome. Because I have a dream. And so it shall be. Together we will walk that road. Together we can ascend that path, no matter how treacherous, no matter the obstacles. In unity is our strength, our bond is our faith. Four score and twenty minutes ago, you were there. And now we are here. Because we have faith. And each other. And together we are. Glorious will be our kingdom, for we shall beat our swords into ploughshares and reap as we sow. So join with me. Come with me. Abide with me and we can do this, together we can, as one people we can, united we can, you know we can! Who can? We can! God bless!’

This is the speech Barack Obama gave just two weeks before the election in 2008. Actually, that’s not exactly true. In fact, it’s not even vaguely true. But you can almost imagine him giving that kind of speech. You can hear his strangely staccato cadences, his stopping. And then. Starting at. Odd points. But it’s so deeply effective, and people are swept away by his rhetoric. They feel as if in the presence of something transcendent, something great, something special. A new dawn is breaking, a new world is being born, and they are witness to this moment. Amen and hallelujah. And all this because someone like Obama is so fine at the art of speechifying. He can take words and turn them into lightning bolts that strike deep into the hearts of those who listen. He can conjure images from the depths and prestidigitate phantasmagoria from the ether. He can convince us that truly something good will come to us, if only we go with him. Yes he can.
And that’s a problem. Because he can’t. Between the fantasy world the orator creates with words and the real world a President lives in (along with the rest of us), there is a chasm that can never be crossed. And as the great orator’s words soar into the stratosphere, so too do the expectations of those listening. They actually believe that the words spoken will become deeds done. But unlike the words which can keep flying forever – and if they never return, so much the better for the orator – at some point those expectations will have to return to earth, and the landing is unlikely to be gentle.
So what is to be done? Take a leaf, I suggest, from those who ingeniously temper their words so as not to raise expectations to a fever pitch. There’s no disappointment when your President says things like this: ‘I'm the commander -- see, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president.’ Or this: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family’. When  George W. Bush opened his mouth and the words fell out, people knew what they were getting. He offered incomprehensible idiocy, and that’s what they got, and you can’t blame a man when he delivers on what he promised.

'What am I saying? How would I know?'

1 comment:

  1. I know who I would rather listen to, though!