Giving a good speech nowadays is considered “speechifying,” gussying up the obvious. At worst, it’s viewed as sophistry, peddling cow pies as crème brûlée. Even the word rhetoric, long a pillar of classical education, has devolved to mean empty speech.
So when a truly gifted orator like President Barack Obama appears, his talent can count as much against as for him. Critics say, Oh, sure, he can give a good speech, as if that’s a bad thing. To admire his skill is tantamount to confessing puppy love, or gullibility.
I think he ranks with the best speakers in my lifetime, and by far the best of the modern presidents. What Obama is doing is rehabilitating rhetoric itself.
When he gives a major address, such as Wednesday’s State of the Union, you heara leader actually thinking through a difficult issue in public, taking a skeptical, even critical audience down a careful line of reasoning toward a newway of thinking. It is, traditionally, one of the central roles of tatesmanship.
He is not an emoter. And like all modern presidents, he works with speechwriters. Anyone required to orate several times daily needs them. But themost remarkable of Obama’s speeches are so deeply rooted in his own identity,experience, and ideas that it is clear he has shaped them himself. And his cool,cerebral style is what some of us prefer.
Two addresses stand out, the pivotal one on race delivered here at the onstitution Center during his 2008 campaign, and more recently his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Few get elected president without being able to deliver a good speech. Ronald Reagan was a famously talented orator. In his acclaimed "Tear Down This Wall" speech in Berlin in 1987, he eloquently rearticulated the fundamental conflict of the Cold War, rallied the Western world's opposition to totalitarianism, and defied the Soviet Union to destroy its most visible symbol of oppression.
The real work of rhetoric is to explain and persuade. A great speech -- like, say, Winston Churchill's 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech, or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech -- can define an era and alter the course of history.
The greatest presidential orator was Abraham Lincoln. It is doubtful anyone will ever equal his profound utterances during the Civil War, which played an important role in the Union victory. At his most sublime, at Gettysburg or at his inaugurations, Lincoln's rhetoric is poetry.
But before he delivered these concise, classical gems, Lincoln engaged in a different kind of speechmaking. In his long-running and long-winded debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, to whom Lincoln would lose in a race for the Senate in 1858, and then defeat two years later in the vote for president, Lincoln engaged in complex historical and moral argument.
Trying to get elected, he preached a doctrine of universal equality to an overwhelmingly racist society. In the 19th century, even most whites opposed to slavery believed themselves a superior race.
Douglas was an enthusiastic racist, and he played with great success to the worst instincts of the crowd. Struggling against this hateful headwind, Lincoln narrowed his argument to the critical issue at hand, whether to allow new territories to enter the Union as slave states.
He steadfastly appealed to the crowd's better nature: "In (Douglas') view, the question of whether a new country shall be slave or free is a matter of as utter indifference, as it is to whether his neighbor shall plant his farm with tobacco, or stack it with horned cattle. Now, whether this view is right or wrong, it is very certain that the mass of mankind take a totally different view. They consider slavery a great moral wrong; and their feeling against it is not evanescent, but eternal. It lies at the very foundation of their sense of justice; and it cannot be trifled with."
Lincoln sought to end slavery, but in a way that would avoid civil war and preserve the Union. In a world of hereditary monarchs and despots, he saw the United States as a fragile beacon of hope for all humanity, and despaired that its fall would mean not just the perpetuation of slavery for blacks in America, but the continued political enslavement of all men everywhere.
The clashes with Douglas were great theater and were as filled with demagogy, name-calling, distortion, and dirty tricks as the worst modern campaigns. Lincoln battled on this level with gusto, but in the midst of the low politicking we hear him laboring to move his audiences in the right direction by careful reasoning, by diligently researched history lessons, and by moral persuasion.
This is precisely what Obama attempted in Philadelphia and in Oslo.
The race speech was prompted by the most damaging attack on his presidential campaign. His opponents had unearthed ugly and incendiary video clips of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, essentially denouncing the nation Obama sought to lead. If he simply renounced Wright, he would be seen as throwing a close friend overboard to further his own ambition. If he defended Wright, he would be colored with the same radical brush.
Obama did neither. He denounced Wright's words, but defended his anger. He offered a history lesson, a very Lincolnesque vision of the Constitution as a work in progress, and reminded us that racial fear, hatred and injustice are part of every American's heritage, black and white. He suggested the nation could, remain stuck in this racial stalemate, or choose to move past it.
When he was named recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama was in a political box. He acknowledged that he had done little to earn it. Simply accepting the honor would fuel perceptions of him as an empty suit. To refuse the award would have meant slapping away an important gesture of international hope and goodwill.
Beyond that was the awkward spectacle of receiving the hallowed prize just after ordering 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama did not just give an acceptance speech; he mounted a detailed moral argument. He stood up before the world's foremost advocates of peace-for-its-own- sake and lectured them on the moral necessity of war. He honored their idealism, but asked them to admit reality.
"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth," he said. "We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."
Substantive rhetoric like this is more than just an atmospheric improvement. The decline of public speaking in this country contributes to a culture of political stalemate. When political debate consists of rivals hurling stink bombs at each other over an impassable ideological wall, it suggests there are no answers, only conflict. Politics becomes a form of entertainment.
Restoring substantive argument to political debate reasserts the importance of statesmanship. It sees the higher calling of politics, which is to make things happen in a democracy.
Bowden is a former staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer and author, most recently of "The Best Game Ever." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.