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Patrick Hruby

Soar or Bore?

Obama, MLK and the slow death of electrifying speechcraft

ABC News

Almost 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave arguably the most powerful American political speech of the 20th century: “I Have a Dream.” An impassioned call for racial equality. A soaring vision of social unity. A moral and stylistic tour de force, rife with literary and biblical references, delivered in the urgent, gripping cadence of a Baptist sermon, a 17-minute oratorical masterpiece that remains stirring and resonant to this day.

Almost six months ago, President Obama stood behind a lectern at George Washington University, where he said something about limiting itemized deductions - and appeared to put Vice President Joseph R. Biden to sleep.

In the gulf between the two addresses lies a riddle: Whatever happened to the lofty, emotional, go-for-broke style in American political discourse - from Mr. Obama, whose electrifying speechcraft once made him our time’s most promising heir to that tradition, on down?

With the president set to speak at the rescheduled dedication of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Sunday and facing a daunting re-election battle amid a nationwide mood of division and malaise, the answer could have a significant impact on the 2012 campaign.

“I think there has been a loss,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and MSNBC television host. “You still see a few people speak that way [in the black community], but not as many.

“Even in the white community, where you once had John Kennedy and others, now the speaking [style] is more removed and disconnected. We’ve lost the emotional connection to people.”

From soaring to stodgy

Stemwinders haven’t been the norm for a good while - not in the nation that made Al Gore and Bob Dole serious presidential contenders - but stylish, memorable speeches weren’t always rare.

Williams Jennings Bryan’s rousing “Cross of Gold” address prompted listeners to leap from their seats and bang umbrellas against the floor, propelling him to an 1896 presidential nomination. Two years before King’s “Dream” speech, President Kennedy used his inaugural address to ask the nation to, well, “ask not.” In 1974, Ronald Reagan invoked a now-familiar “shining city on a hill.”

Mr. Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention - an energetic call for national unity during a bitterly contested presidential campaign - made the Illinois state senator an overnight political sensation. In 2008, similarly charged addresses played a major role in Mr. Obama’s defeat of Democratic challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain en route to the presidency.

At the time, Mr. Obama’s head speechwriter, Jon Favreau, told reporters that he drew inspiration from King and Kennedy. A linguist noted that Mr. Obama used cadences similar to King‘s.

Since taking office, however, Mr. Obama’s major speeches have taken on a businesslike, subdued and even flat effect - less reminiscent of King’s full-throated call and response than of a corporate middle manager giving a regional sales presentation.

In August, a much-discussed New York Times essay by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen expressed disappointment in Mr. Obama’s presidential rhetoric and dubbed his inaugural address an “extraordinary … failure in storytelling.”

“Obama has the skill,” said Stephen McKenna, chairman of the Catholic University Department of Media Studies and editor of “The World’s Greatest Speeches.”

“We saw that soaring style during the campaign. But as president, it has become the language of the boardroom. And in this political atmosphere, I don’t think that Obama’s cool style has served him particularly well.”

In part, the difference between Mr. Obama’s campaign and presidential rhetoric reflects the difference between running for office and attempting to govern. Successful candidates take stands, pick fights and draw principled ideological contrasts with opponents, because elections are winner-take-all quests; successful officeholders have to balance that approach with pragmatic, low-key compromise, because making and enforcing laws is anything but.

So as Mr. Obama’s political strategy pivots toward the 2012 election, his speechmaking has begun to show flashes of his former energy - most notably in a jobs bill address to Congress and in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus in which the president called on his black supporters to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get to work.

“As Mr. Obama has come to realize the gravity of his position and the headaches that come with governing, he has toned down his rhetoric to match the reality of his situation,” said Stephen Curtis, a communications professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. “His ideals may be intact, but the reality of what he can accomplish, especially now with a Republican majority in the House and a national mood that does not necessarily favor his plans or his party, has forced him to speak in a more plain fashion.”

From pulpit to PowerPoint

Governing aside, Mr. Obama’s tamped-down rhetoric fits a larger trend of flattened political speech. Start with modern media. Scholars long have argued that electronic communication is essentially “cool” - that is, while an in-person orator needs an amplified voice, a speaker on radio or television is better served by restraint. The rip-roaring address of yore became the fireside chat of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a personal conversation between a politician and each individual audience member.

“In a small television studio, one of the most awkward things you can do is vocalize really loudly,” Mr. McKenna said. “For politicians, that carries over to other venues, even on the campaign stump.”

John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University, said shifts in digital media - to social networking, instant messaging and a round-the-clock news cycle - have further dulled the public’s ability to process complex argument and formal rhetoric, while fostering a taste for addresses that are simple, punchy and visual.

“We live in the age of Twitter,” Mr. McKenna said. “If MLK was alive today, I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have a Twitter feed.”

“Gotcha” journalism - as amplified by often partisan 24-hour cable news, the blogosphere and social media - also has had a chilling effect on unorthodox, unscripted or otherwise risk-taking rhetoric. “We’re living in an age of gaffes, where anything that varies from the usual can be used against you,” Mr. Carroll said. “The safest road is the one with the least rhetorical ornamentation. You narrow the possibility for people to criticize you from either side of the political spectrum. Of course, your words are turned into oatmeal.”

If the media landscape has changed, so too has the political climate. Faced with a closely divided electorate in which less ideological, more pragmatic independents often form the deciding swing vote, politicians need to look both ways before crossing. Speakers like King essentially delivered sermons intended to challenge and provoke. Modern politicians are delivering poll-driven marketing messages designed to satisfy diverse constituencies while alienating as few listeners as possible.

When King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, he included references to the Old Testament and Shakespeare, Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the Declaration of Independence, weaving a symbolic tapestry that gave his words more power and resonance. Similarly, Reagan’s reference to “a shining city on a hill” borrowed from Kennedy, who borrowed from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who in turn borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount.

In contrast, Mr. Carroll said, contemporary listeners largely lack a lofty set of shared cultural references.

“Forget the Bible, Shakespeare, [Charles] Dickens,” he said. “The common currency now are the messages you receive through marketing. ‘Tastes great, less filling.’ Remember [1984 Democratic presidential nominee] Walter Mondale asking [primary opponent] Gary Hart, ‘Where’s the beef?’ That’s universal in politics now.”

So, too, it seems is the deflation from King’s gripping speech - the final crescendo delivered without notes, drawing on King’s background as a Baptist preacher and two decades of public speaking - to today’s humdrum addresses, from the charismatic Mr. Obama of “Yes we can” to the businesslike Mr. Obama of laundry-list economic proposals.

Mr. Sharpton - no stranger to a King-like speaking style - said that development isn’t entirely lamentable.

“In King’s time, we couldn’t go to certain schools or be in boardrooms,” he said. “The black church was the only place leaders were trained and developed. Now you have black CEOs, a black president, people from more academic backgrounds, with a more dispassionate style.

“I’m 56 years old. Most of us in my age group, we think the shift is a result of the progress that King made.”

Besides, Mr. Sharpton said, there will always be a place for a rousing, old-fashioned speech, the kind King made into an art form. “You’re dealing with people now who are treated as consumers buying a product instead of people hearing a message,” Mr. Sharpton said. “People who are sold, not moved. Speakers who can get your attention, rather than get you to focus and believe in something. But when you see protests, marches and movements, you see them still led by people that speak with passion.

“So I think there’s a hunger for it. Even sometimes when people don’t know what they’re hungry for. People can tell when something’s missing.”

Read the full article at the Washington Times