- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008


Hillary Clinton has a problem with Barack Obama’s speaking skills, which outshine her own plodding, wonkish, technocratic speeches that pale in comparison.

While our country confronts big issues and daunting challenges, the former first lady attacks the freshman senator for his superior oratory. Such is the trivialization of today’s Democratic presidential campaign.

Intimidated by the apparent contrast between Mr. Obama’s often soaring campaign rhetoric and her flat, nuts-and-bolts speeches that tell us she is “ready to lead on Day One,” she has ridiculed and belittled Mr. Obama’s rhetoric a defensive campaign tactic that Democratic Party advisers say isn’t smart and isn’t working.

“Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills,” she said last week at a General Motors plant in Warren, Ohio. “My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions.” It has become a staple theme in her stump speech that she repeats just about everywhere she goes in one form or another. “There’s a difference between speeches and solutions, between talk and action,” she said this week in Wisconsin.

Is this what the Democratic primary is about? Speech envy?

But party strategists, including some who are her supporters, tell me her attack strategy is ineffective at best and self-defeating at worst because she seems to be admitting that her rival has better communication skills — one of the chief requisites of an effective president.

“I don’t think it’s a smart attack, unless she can make the ‘all talk, no accomplishments’ charge stick. Clearly when good oratory is linked to action, it enhances the effectiveness of the action,” said a key Democratic Party adviser who served in the Clinton White House. “It’s obviously not working. She seems to be belittling herself in the process,” said another Democratic election strategist who did not want to be identified.

Government scholars seem to agree, saying good speaking skills are important attributes in a president seeking to either lift up a beleaguered nation, move it in another direction or build support for a reform agenda.

“The two most successful recent presidents are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who gave great speeches. They were really good at it and that’s one of the reasons they were successful,” said Gregg Easterbrook, a governance studies scholar at the Brookings Institution. “One of the main things we remember about Abraham Lincoln is his oratory. We don’t remember the details of a deal he cut with the House Ways and Means Committee, but we remember his speeches,” Mr. Easterbrook told me. “You don’t have to be a good speechmaker to be a good president but it sure helps,” he said.

It does indeed and that’s a major reason Mr. Obama was leading in the delegate count and drawing huge crowds that in most cases dwarfed the voter turnout at Hillary’s events.

Mrs. Clinton’s obsession with Mr. Obama’s eloquence took a nastier turn this week when her campaign aides attacked him for using a few lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (an Obama adviser) without crediting him. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Mr. Obama said, reciting famous phrases such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” Thomas Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear except fear itself.”

Because the borrowed passages were some of the most recognizable and inspiring words in American political history, Hillary’s plagiarism attack fell flat and made her look silly. He dismissed the criticism as “not a big deal,” confidently adding, “I thought they were good lines.”

But something bigger was happening here. Her small-minded attacks on Mr. Obama’s strengths as a speaker have only called attention to her own weaknesses in communicating her ideas. The result is that her repeated put-downs of his oratory are drawing increasing criticism from the news media.

The New York Times noted on Super Tuesday that “she often sounds more like a senator than a presidential candidate — delivering wonky recitations of her policy positions instead of a raise-the-roof stemwinder.”

“She is campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama,” writes The Washington Post’s columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

We judge our presidential candidates by their words and how they convey them. Ideas and the details behind them sometimes become lost in the crossfire of a primary campaign, but the words can breathe new life into those ideas and rally voters behind a cause greater than themselves.

There is something rather small about a presidential candidate who feels she must demean her rival’s powers of speech because she does not possess those skills herself.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist

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