- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama strings words together with enormous flair, but his speeches sound better than they read. The words dazzle, but lack precision. The cadences make music, but music marred by occasional false notes. He complains that his audiences lack focus and are easily distracted, but the trick is in his rhetoric.

In prescribing more troops for the war in Afghanistan, he calls Iraq a “dangerous distraction.” Iraq is dangerous, but not a distraction. Iraq, in fact, is a less dangerous place than it was before the surge, which Sen. John McCain supported and Mr. Obama did not. (When Mr. Obama had the chance, he voted against sending more troops to Afghanistan, too.) When his campaign suggested that he might speak at the Brandenburg Gate, and he switched to the nearby Victory column, which commemorated the 19th-century Prussian victory over the Danes, Austrians and French, he said he didn’t want the setting to be a distraction. But an appearance at the Brandenburg Gate wouldn’t distract so much as reflect his chutzpah. He forced German Chancellor Angela Merkel into the schoolmarm mode, to raise an eyebrow at the choice she called “odd” for a candidate who was not yet wearing a president’s breeches.

William Safire, the New York Times word maven, examined the language he calls “Obamese” and observes that the candidate’s use of the word “distraction” smacks of being “defensive,” as if criticism is a “diversion of attention” rather than an attempt to gain insight into the man and his message.

“There is a sort of ‘Obamamania’ in Germany right now,” says an aide in Angela Merkel’s office, “but I think a lot of people will have their illusions shattered if he does become president.” He’s a novelty now, drawing admiration for not being George W. as much as for being the first black presumptive nominee for president. Europeans, like many Americans, are besotted by sentiment, basing their judgment on what they feel, not what they know.

Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is refreshing after George W. Bush’s tangled syntax and mangled sentences. His word comfort contrasts favorably with Mr. McCain’s bluntness in the awkward cadences of an old soldier. But speeches are not spontaneous; they are carefully crafted and can hide a multitude of sins. The poet John Milton, the most educated man of his time, intentionally wrote dull speeches unenlivened with simile and metaphor to be delivered by the character of God in “Paradise Lost.” He gave Satan the florid eloquence to persuade and beguile, expecting his readers to see how words can deceive.

When Hillary Clinton realized she was losing to Mr. Obama, she scoffed at his rhetoric. “There’s a big difference between us,” she said, “speeches versus solution, talk versus action. … Words are cheap.” But words can be expensive, too, depending on their weight and meaning. Words can be golden or merely gold-plated, and there’s the rub. If you should wear Mr. Obama’s words as a necklace, you should expect your neck to turn green. It’s the tarnish now beginning to dull the glitter that’s driving the cult crazy. The European cultists may soon learn that living on rhetoric alone can get old in a hurry. When the “wiggle-room” candidate “nuanced” his positions on troop withdrawals from Iraq and changed “no preconditions” to “preparations” for meeting with Iran, he raised eyebrows again. The golden-tongued seducer may turn out to be an alchemist playing tricks with base metal.

When William Jennings Bryan, at 36 the youngest man to be nominated for president, delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention at the old Chicago Coliseum in 1896, the Democrats thought their “Boy Orator of the Platte” was irresistible, unstoppable and inevitable. So did the Republicans. The crowds were frenzied and passionate. He was the candidate of change, “the man we have been waiting for.” William McKinley, the experienced war hero, had a quieter campaign style, and invited voters to his home in Canton, Ohio, to listen to him speak from the front porch.

When a man sent Bryan a rabbit’s foot for good luck, soon others did, too, and thousands of rabbits lost their feet. “If all the people who have given me rabbits’ feet in the campaign will vote for me, “Bryan said, “there is no possible doubt of my election.” The German movie director Wim Wenders used the polished red marble of the Victory monument as a setting for his “Wings of Desire,” about an angel who is reduced to mere mortal. Mr. Obama might retire to a friendly front porch to reflect on whether there might be a lesson here.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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