Cheat-Seeking Missles

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sorry, Peggy, You So Missed The Point

Peggy Noonan wrote some beautiful speeches for Ronald Reagan, so while I've downgraded her punditry considerably over the last few years, I've still respected her as a critic of what makes a speech great or less than great.

No more.

In today's WSJ, she declares of Obama's race in America speech:

I thought Barack Obama's speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to. It was clear that's what he wanted, and this is rare.

It seemed to me as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics.
Honest? Obama lost any claim to honesty when he -- he who refuses to wear a flag lapel pin -- suddenly appeared flanked by not one, not two, but eight flags. Symbols matter too, and anyone who can't see the phony symbolism of Obama's stage setting is forever forbidden from criticizing the "Mission Accomplished" banner that has plagued Bush for years now.

Noonan zeroed in on what she thinks is the crux of the speech:
Most significantly, Mr. Obama asserted that race in America has become a generational story. The original sin of slavery is a fact, but the progress we have lived through the past 50 years means each generation experiences race differently. Older blacks, like Mr. Wright, remember Jim Crow and were left misshapen by it. Some rose anyway, some did not; of the latter, a "legacy of defeat" went on to misshape another generation.
Does she not see that by allying and aligning himself with a pastor who wishes to spread the "legacy of defeat" to another generation, he is willingly, happily thrusting his two daughters into that world of suspicion and resentment, instead of the new world he professes to seek? Isn't what one teaches one's children the truest test of one's beliefs? By teaching his children that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's teachings are the teachings he wants to listen to on Sunday, he is saying it's his choice to keep the shackles of resentment and unforgiveness firmly in place for future generations.

Noonan suffered a sytlistic swoon during the speech:

Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line -- "And families in Michigan matter!" or "What I stand for is affordable quality health care!" -- and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.

Mr. Obama subverted this [soundbite speaking style] in his speech. He didn't have applause lines. He didn't give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn't summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn't hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he'd said.

This from Reagan's speechwriter -- Reagan who mastered applause lines. Tear down the wall of your miconceptions, Noonan. The speech may move writers who yearn for more complex sentences and political policy wonks who yearn for substance over soundbite, but if the speech is dishonest at its core, if it shows the candidate to be a hypocrite who can't explain his way out of his corner but tries, nonetheless, by attempting to drag everyone into the cesspool, then what care we about how long a soundbite producers have to air?

The speech was about saving his campaign, not altering the speaking style of politicians. So the ulitimate measure of the speech is whether or not it save his campaign. In that regard I'll give Noonan one. She said at the outset of the piece, "We'll see if it's a success." There is certainly no evidence to date that it was.

Labels: , , , ,