Tuesday, June 3, 2008

General Election Eve

Floating around the cable news networks listening to McCain/Hillary/Obama speeches....

I missed McCain's speech. Somebody said it read better than it sounded in delivery. While I certainly don't equate rhetorical ability with capacity to serve the nation, still it seems to me that more than any other political office that of President requires the ability to speak directly and eloquently to the country. Has there been a transcendent American President who was not a good public speaker? After eight years of a rhetorical paucity, McCain had better not underestimate the appeal of a candidate capable of eloquence.

Hillary is one steely lady. That speech took a certain imperviousness to Obama's historic achievement, a certain disregard for the Democratic party's larger needs, and a certain resolve to concede no more that forced. This election season I have found myself torn between an admiration for her total commitment and a queasiness that nothing calls this quality out in her so much as her own political survival. In the end policy points, allegiances, even party welfare all seem negotiable compared to that larger necessity. She not only didn't concede - which Obama must surely have hoped that she would given how he praised her in his speech - she didn't even acknowledge his crossing the delegate count goal post! Here in Arkansas the anecdotes I heard growing up of the Clinton campaigns had Hillary as the one most unwilling to give an inch to an opponent, right down to crashing an opponent's press conference. Such fight makes for an efficient, capable politician, but brings as well the opportunities for Clintonian political theater. That is how her speech struck me tonight, a theatrical display of nerve.

Obama's speech was generous to Clinton, nice to McCain before socking him, and in love with the American people. He is in love with our innate nobility, our basic decency, our capacity to change. All these qualities in us he ties to our larger American identity, so that in celebrating ourselves we are celebrating the country, or vice versa. It's brilliant, it's beautiful, and it's moving. Especially moving to me is the prospect of a great mind in the White House. My main question is whether this is true of Obama. Is he a Jefferson in the 1776 mold, young and relatively inexperienced but nevertheless rising admirably to the challenge of the Declaration of Independence? Or is he more in the mold of Kennedy, again young and relatively inexperienced, whose administration was inspirational from start to finish but whose policy decisions (especially foreign) were mostly unimpressive and sometimes disastrous. So which is he? A statesman such as we rarely see, with a greatness of mind and a largeness of character to make resume secondary? Or an inspiring speaker merely, who will stumble on policy decisions immune to the effects of rhetorical uplift?

2 comments:

Jack and Amy said...

So how do we figure out the answer?

Laura said...

As far as the effect of youth and inexperience goes, you can't answer that question before he gets into office. You can try and satisfy yourself as to the content of his political character. You can make some sort of judgment on how well he would wear the office, meaning the symbolic role of president as opposed to the policy role. It is actually in this last capacity that Obama is really attractive to me.

About Me

Little Rock, Arkansas
I work at a local museum, date a lovely boy, and with my free time procrastinate on things like blogs.