How Obama does that thing he does.

Media criticism.
Feb. 14 2008 6:41 PM

How Obama Does That Thing He Does

A professor of rhetoric cracks the candidate's code.

(Continued from Page 1)

He also knows how to comfort voters with a national narrative of his own invention. As Frank writes, the Song of Obama usually begins with references to Thomas Jefferson, a self-contradicting political thinker whose stock—for good reason—has not always been high in African-American circles. Next, he ropes in Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as less than a perfect emancipator in this 2005 speech. And yet Obama, a tall, gangly, lawyer whose political career was made in Springfield, Ill., slyly compared himself to Lincoln when he declared for the presidency. Lincoln, Obama said, was "a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer" who "tells us that there is power in words" and "tells us there is power in conviction."

Obama's national narrative notes both Roosevelts before calling on Martin Luther King Jr. and, as everybody knows, Ronald Reagan. The implication, of course, is that the Obama candidacy stands as the fulfillment of the American ideal, and by casting their ballot for him, voters can participate in that transcendent moment. It's a dizzying notion. No wonder George Packer's mind went vacant after he heard Obama speak.


In his speeches, Obama pretends to be a hero out of Joseph Campbell. He talks about being on a journey that is about more than just hope and change. If you want to walk together down his American road, he wants you to be prepared for hard work. It's never going to be easy. He warns his listeners to beware of the cynics and the they-say and they-said naysayers who believe the quest is hopeless.

Obama speeches aren't all nonstop inspiration, mind you. Just as John McCain is stuck on addressing "my friends" in his speeches, Obama can't resist starting a sentence with "now, I know" and loves to do battle with the nefarious "some who will." But his genuine good humor, his bassoon-and-gravel voice, and a trust quotient that equals that of Walter Cronkite help him over those humps.

In a response to Frank's paper (published in tandem with it), Mark Lawrence McPhail of Miami University warns of the downside of the Obama vision, which he regards as, in the 1994 words of Stephen L. Carter, one that "almost nobody really believes in but almost everybody desperately wants to."

McPhail rails against "Obama's 'audacious hope,' "  which he considers "at best naïve, and at worst opportunistic." Skipping the much-needed national conversation about race in favor of Obamaism in the sky won't bring peace, and it won't bring justice, McPhail believes.

Obama's grand rhetoric did, however, win him 90 percent of the black vote and 52 percent of the white vote in the Virginia primary this week. Voters might not know what he said, but they have a good idea of what he means.


Where did Obama study rhetoric? Or is he just a natural? Send speculations to (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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