The Myth of “The Orator”

by Derrick G. Jeter

“When Pericles speaks, the people say, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Let us march!’”

Pericles’ praise of Demosthenes’ persuasive appeal could have applied to Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. But today, the one who won the moniker “The Orator” can hardly win the applause of an audience—conservative or liberal.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Obama’s soaring rhetoric of “hope” and “change” was fresh, exciting, and uplifting, especially after eight years of presidential verbal follies. It appeared the United States would have a president who loved language and knew how to marshal words to persuade, not politic or demagogue. It appeared this generation would have a truly articulate president. Not a bumbling George W. Bush. Not a too slick Willy Clinton. And not a boring George H. W. Bush. Instead, this generation of Americans would have a Ronald Reagan, a John F. Kennedy, a Franklin D. Roosevelt, or an Abraham Lincoln . . . or so it seemed in 2007 and 2008.

Obama burst on the national stage in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention when he delivered the keynote address. A novice to the national scene—he was mere state senator from Illinois then—he electrified the hall with his compelling personal story. And he told it well. That first foray on the big stage was an overwhelming success. Obama certainly had the moxie to play on the national stage. Minutes before mounting the podium he told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he was like basketball star LeBron James: “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play at this level. I got game.” And he sure seemed to have it that night.

Four years later, his performances as the junior United States Senator from Illinois on the biggest stage, during the presidential primaries, drew enormous crowds and thunderous applause. It could be said that Obama had verbal game on par with Demosthenes, Cicero, or Churchill. It could have been said then . . . not today.

In 2008 Obama told an aid that “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters.” But anything can be said; not everything said is true. What we didn’t know then that we know today is Obama never had game . . . not then, not now.

Phrasemaking is easy. And Obama is a master at it: “We are the change we seek.” “We are five days from fundamentally transforming America.” “Yes we can!” But these are political bromides—platitudes appearing to communicate much while communicating nothing. The style of his speeches is like a beautiful woman you’d like to date . . . until she opens her mouth and you find out how incredible forgettable she really is. There’s nothing particularly interesting or memorable about her words, and her beauty begins to fad when you’d like to have a conversation over dinner.

This is Barack Obama since assuming the presidency.

In a piece published in the Wall Street Journal in 2003, titled “Just the Facts,” Peggy Noonan—a beautiful woman who knows how to speak well—wrote:

Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic. People think passionate and moving oratory is the big thing, but it isn’t. The hard true presentation of facts followed by a declaration of how we must deal with those facts is the key. Without a recitation of hard data, high rhetoric seems insubstantial, vaguely disingenuous, merely dramatic. Without a logical case to support rhetoric it has nothing to do. It’s like icing without cake.

Once the facts and the declaration are put forward it’s fine to use eloquence if you can muster it, and ringing oratory too if it will help people to see things as you do, and help them lean toward taking the course of action you recommend.

So to sum up: Moving oratory is what you use to underscore a point. It is not in itself the point.

Obama has the oratory part down, but his oratory woeful lacks logic and facts. And today, especially in the economic climate we find ourselves in after Standard & Poors’ downgrade of America’s AAA rating, the icing of high sounding words is too saccharine—it isn’t enough. Throughout his presidency, particularly on the big issues, Obama has claimed that he hasn’t explained enough, hasn’t communicated enough. He’s right. He hasn’t explained or communicated because he hasn’t explained or communicated facts.

And that’s the point. Facts are key. Without them the mystique of The Orator is merely myth.

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