Sam Smith, 2008 – The assumption held by many is that Obama is exceptionally eloquent. So what happened when Hillary Clinton accused him of relying on words rather than experience? He gave a somewhat immodest speech which inferred he was up there with Martin Luther King and the Declaration of Independence – quoting some of their epic phrases and then adding sardonically, “just words.” The words he used to defend his eloquence, however, turned out to have been lifted (or borrowed)from his pal, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts.
This is not a criminal offense but neither should it pass unnoticed because it sheds light not only on the candidate but on the time in which we live, a time of such persistent illusions that we can easily find ourselves accepting the fake as the real and even praising it as eloquent.
I got to thinking about Obama last night as 12 men competed on American Idol. I suddenly realized why so many contemporary singers leave me uneasy or confused: their words and their facial expressions aren’t in sync. One singer crooned an extremely sad lyric as he grinned and flirted with the women in the audience. Another, in a typical pose of the contemporary vocalist, contorted his face as though he was being waterboarded, even while singing lyrics that were maniacally bland.
I mentioned this to a friend, who referred me to a tale by Lesley Stahl of CBS News, describing a critical interview with Ronald Reagan in 1984:
“I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.”
But, reported Bob Somerby in the Daily Howler, that isn’t what happened. “When the piece aired, [Dick] Darman called from the White House. ‘Way to go, kiddo,’ he said to Stahl. ‘What a great piece. We loved it.’”
Stahl replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said?”
“Nobody heard what you said.”
“You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”
Wrote Somerby, “Stahl’s critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darman’s theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.”
These are our times: when upbeat visuals contradict a critical interview, when you can sing a sad tale and flirt at the same time, and when you can be eloquent while stealing somebody else’s cliches. And the participants, the media and the public hardly notice anymore and, when they do, defend it as normal.
So, in Obama’s case, I adapted with the thought that if Clinton and Obama were to deadlock, perhaps Deval Patrick could be the perfect compromise candidate – of the same hue as Obama and you’d get the eloquence first hand.
But then I discovered that Governor Patrick had an approval rating of only 48% so maybe these eloquent black Harvard Law grads get boring after a while.
Then I read today that some of the younger voters may be thinking of Obama as like so yesterday. Does that mean that we don’t have to like consider him so you know eloquent anymore?
Isn’t living in a fantasy fun?