Even under normal circumstances, Barack Obama would have had a difficult time meeting expectations for his acceptance speech. With the speech scheduled on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his own historic status as the first African-American on a major-party presidential ticket, Obama had some heavy lifting to craft a speech that would resonate through those themes. As William Safire notes, though, Obama barely tried, and surrounded the setting with so much stagecraft and fanfare that the Greek colonnade behind him evoked one simple message — hubris:
BY choosing the venue of a vast outdoor stadium as John Kennedy did for his “new frontier” acceptance, and by speaking on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address, Barack Obama — whose claim to fame is an ability to move audiences with his words — deliberately invited comparison with two of the most memorable speeches of our recent history.
What a mistake.
A speaker must first ask: what is the best setting to make close contact with the person I want to reach? In this day and age, it is not a huge throng wildly cheering on cue. On the contrary, the target is the individual American voter watching a TV or computer screen at home, accustomed to looking over the shoulders of elected representatives, in colorful convention assembled, selecting the party’s nominee.
Instead, Obama’s handlers offered the political version of “American Idol” — the audacity of hype. On the 50-yard line of the football field, at a reported cost of $6 million, they erected a plywood Parthenon, its fake Grecian columns suggesting the White House. At the end, not a traditional balloon drop in a contained hall — enjoyable hoopla — but a fireworks display in the heavens over a mass of humanity in a blizzard of confetti, all too like the collectivist fantasy that opened and closed the Beijing Olympics.
And Safire hasn’t even started addressing the speech itself. Almost alone among the commentariat, Safire picked out the passage where Obama all but accused John McCain of cowardice — a point I noted:
Then came a strange one: “John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.” What’s that supposed to mean — that McCain is a coward, unwilling to lead a charge into the hills of Pakistan? That Obama would? Most post-speech TV analysis, blown away by the sky-piercing fireworks, ignored that low blow; nor was attention paid to his replay of the charge that “naysayers” are motivated by more than his politics: “I don’t fit the typical pedigree.”
Ironically, just before that, Obama said he’d like to have a debate on patriotism and national defense with John McCain. Really? McCain offered a series of town-hall debates, one per week, starting in the summer and running straight through to the election. Obama, who had made this exact same statement in May, ran away from the challenge instead.
John McCain doesn’t need to demonstrate his courage and willingness to defend this country. Obama doesn’t want to face McCain in open-forum debates, even after his childish challenges get answered. Draw your own conclusions.
As for the rest of the speech, Safire says, it offered nothing more than what Obama supporters hear in his stump speeches. He did mention Dr. King, but almost as an afterthought. Instead of offering soaring rhetoric that transcended race, Obama hinted that racism lies at the heart of any opposition to his candidacy, a smear he’s now made four times this summer. Instead of offering specifics, he fell back onto the populist rhetoric that grew tiresome and ineffective for Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards by the end of the primaries.
In the end, the setting provided an unintentional theme of hubris and hype. That sums up Barack Obama and his quest for the presidency, without having ever run anything or accomplished anything in his career.
Update: If you don’t trust Safire, try this from David Broder:
No one is likely to argue that the speech here “changed politics in America.” His jibes at John McCain and George Bush were standard-issue Democratic fare, and his recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry.
There was no theme music to the speech and really no phrase or sentence that is likely to linger in the memory of any listener. The thing I never expected did in fact occur: Al Gore, the famously wooden former vice president, gave a more lively and convincing speech than Obama did. …
One of the major questions about Obama, of whom so little is known, is whether he is really serious about challenging the partisan gridlock in Washington or whether his election would simply bring on the regular wish list of liberal policies.
His Boston speech — and many others early in this campaign — suggested that he was sincere in wanting to tamp down partisanship and would be creative enough to see the need for enlisting bright people from both parties in confronting the nation’s problems.
But the Denver speech, like many others he has given recently, subordinated any talk of fundamental systemic change to a checklist of traditional Democratic programs.
One could argue that Obama made that tranformation five days earlier, when he picked a 35-year Washington insider with a plethora of connections to lobbyists and PACs as his running mate on the supposed “reform” ticket. In order to believe that, though, you’d have to believe that Obama was ever serious about reform. He didn’t attempt reform in Illinois, and he didn’t attempt it in Chicago. Obama didn’t even attempt it at his church.
Broder thinks that the speech transformed Obama into a standard big-government liberal. Actually, it just exposed him as such, and Broder and the rest of the media have finally started to realize it.