Daily Archives: March 2, 2008

Gideon Rachman has posted a response to my post on his column about Obama’s speeches. I’ll offer a last brief word, and then leave the verdict on Obama’s speeches to history. First of all, though, on a personal note, let me say how stunned I am to be accused of (in my previous life at The Economist) “remorseless logic, fierce invective, and a total lack of sentimentality”. Gideon, you wound me, I bleed. Surely not. I was universally regarded as a complete softy–or so it seemed to me, at least. Don’t tell me that wasn’t so.

Though he still stops short of saying it outright, in his response Gideon relies more explicitly than before on the “Obama’s fans are all idiots” explanation of the candidate’s appeal. Obama, he suggests, is the Barbara Cartland of American politics. (I have to wonder how many people have been inspired by Barbara Cartland, but let that pass.) Gideon’s tastes are more refined than that–as are mine, needless to say. But Obama’s speeches impress a surprisingly wide demographic, if this point is correct. In fact, Obama seems especially liked by the kind of metropolitan intellectuals who share Gideon’s and my disdain for brainless romantic fiction. Something about him, whatever it is, clicks with poor urban blacks and with Harvard academics. As I pointed out, many of his political enemies–smart ones and stupid ones alike–think he gives a great speech.

If somebody is unmoved by a speech, there is nothing anyone can say to change his mind. It is a personal thing, no doubt. But the “Obama’s fans are all idiots” theory that underlies Gideon’s view seems to me just a case of poor observation. It simply isn’t true.

I’ve been giving some thought to last week’s column by Gideon Rachman on the “lousy, empty speeches” of Barack Obama. Gideon is a brilliant fellow and, it so happens, an old friend. It has troubled me that he could be so wrong about this, and I feel I owe it to him to set him straight.

Surely the simplest test of a speaker is the effect he has on his audience. It is indisputable that Obama has moved and even inspired hundreds of thousands of listeners. This is something that even his political enemies concede. His speeches might be “empty”—I’ll come back to that—but how can a political speech be “lousy” if it does exactly what a great political speech is supposed to?

One answer of course might be that the people Obama impresses are all idiots, or more than usually susceptible to mass hysteria. Since I myself find his speeches moving, this argument does not much appeal to me—but that might be how Gideon accounts for Obama’s success. Some of the adulation is exaggerated enough, I admit, to lend this view credence. But it isn’t just Obamaniacs, or Democrats, or wavering independents such as myself who admire the man’s way with a speech. People who would never dream of voting for him agree that he is a fabulous speaker. Has the whole country lost its mind over Obama’s oratory? I think I would rather say, “He is a great speaker. Just look at the results.”

Gideon is on firmer ground when he calls the speeches vacuous. The problem here, though, is that the best political speeches are almost always vacuous, at least in the sense that Gideon invokes—namely, failing to get “stuck into the detail”.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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