The latest theme among the punditry–and once again, one serving conservative interests–is that Barack Obama is a silver-tongued, spell-binding, mesmerizing, messianic orator whose powerful rhetoric is creating a cult of personality. (They really are saying this.) Charles Krauthammer is the latest to weigh in, although largely to summarize his colleagues’ profound insights. One might think it would be an understandable response if the current president had been a model policy-maker, but that obviously is not the case. And it wasn’t that long ago when conservatives were telling us that Ronald Reagan ought to be celebrated for how he made us believe, after the doldrums of the Carter years, that it was “Morning in America.” That message of hope has been conveniently forgotten, it seems. So what’s up?
The convention of capable writers attacking eloquent speakers goes all the way back to Plato. In brief, the cautionary note against demagoguery is an important warning in any democracy, but one often used on behalf of oligarchic interests. And there are two very important considerations: whether the charge is correct in the particular case, and what the alternative is. Furthermore, it can be difficult for some people to tell the difference between bombast and eloquence, and the alternative often gets a pass as one assumes that other speakers with different styles are somehow more substantive, or those with less ability are nonetheless adequately effective.
But those are not the problems we have at the moment. No, the problem is that the currently regnant ideological regime has acquired enormous power, influence, and wealth through the politics of fear. No wonder they now are afraid. Obama isn’t just an orator, but his oratory has done something far more important than enchant his audiences. He has given voice to a new, rightly hopeful America that already exists. If you want to see them, take a look:
These are faces in a crowd that was listening to Obama last month in South Carolina. I liked this photograph the moment I saw it. That response is cued by the smiles in the center of the frame, but by more as well. To the extent that faces can tell the story, these people aren’t just watching, they are listening and responding, and actively so. They are not being snowed but rather attending intelligently and liking what they hear. They are in a good mood because they are responding in kind to a speaker who respects them enough to appeal to their intelligence and their belief in a good society. They are neither stupid nor poor, nor vulnerable to a demagogue because of that. But that is not the whole of it.
The profound beauty captured in this photograph is that they are comfortable with one another. Black and white, young and middle-aged, Southerners all, they are pressed together and yet each is completely at ease. The good vibe comes not from seeing Obama’s luster reflected in their faces, but from who they already are individually and together. This is the America that has been emerging, however fitfully, in that last twenty years. This is the America that wants to hope and deserves a president who can recognize and respect and strive for all that hope represents.
The Krauthammer column appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Presidents Day. The Republican claim to be the “party of Lincoln” became ever more strained with the the continuation of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” throughout the Karl Rove era. Now it appears that it was not enough to abandon Lincoln’s vision of America; his eloquence has to be rejected as well. But let us not forget the challenge he has set before us forever. Politics may not be able to escape vicious partisanship, but it should not succumb to it, and the highest calling of the political leader is to bring people to respond to their common problems by drawing on what is good and true within each of us. As Lincoln knew:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Photograph by Jim Wilson/New York Times. You can read all of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address here.