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Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The 2008 presidential campaign has witnessed the rise of a whole arsenal of new political weapons, including Internet fundraising and sophisticated microtargeting of voters. For Sen. Barack Obama, however, the most powerful weapon has been one of the oldest.

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Not since the days of the whistle-stop tour and the radio addresses that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to hone his message while governor of New York has a presidential candidate been propelled so much by the force of words, according to historians and experts on rhetoric.

Obama's emergence as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination has become nearly as much a story of his speeches as of the candidate himself. He arrived on the national scene with his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his campaign's key turning points have nearly all involved speeches, and his supporters are eager for his election-night remarks nearly as much as for the vote totals.

But his success as a speaker has also invited a new line of attack by his opponents.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), fighting to keep her candidacy alive, has sought to cast Obama (Ill.) as a kind of glib salesman, framing the choice before voters as "talk versus action." Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the likely Republican nominee, has picked up the attack, vowing to keep Americans from being "deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change."

Obama gave his rivals an opening to question his speechmaking recently when he borrowed a riff about the power of words that was used two years ago by Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D), a friend and informal adviser. But the episode also illustrated a basic fact about Obama's ever-evolving stump speech: It is replete with outside influences, from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ("the fierce urgency of now") to Edith Childs, the councilwoman in Greenwood County, S.C., who inspired the "fired up, ready to go" chant that Obama used for months to end the speech.

To his critics, these influences are proof that Obama's rhetoric is less original and inspired than his supporters believe. "If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said in Thursday's debate in Texas. ". . . Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."

To his admirers, this magpie-like tendency to pluck lines and ideas from here and there and meld them into a coherent whole is inherent to good speechwriting and part of what makes Obama effective on the stump. It has allowed him to adapt quickly to rivals' attacks, which he often absorbs into his remarks, parroting them and turning them to his advantage.

It has also allowed him to keep his speeches fresh, a challenge in a campaign in which he has given two or three a day, on average, in addition to a dozen or so major televised addresses along the way. And by continually tweaking his pitch with new material, he gives the impression that he is thinking things through in front of his audiences, instead of reciting a rote speech.

"He seems very deliberative," said Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric at Baylor University. "He seems like he's actually thinking about what he is saying rather than just reading from a script."

The basic structure of Obama's speech has remained more or less the same: a statement of why he is running now, an account of the movement the campaign is building, a subtle argument for why voters should not "settle" for Clinton, a list of the things he would do as president "if you are ready for change," and finally an invocation, and rejection, of the arguments against his candidacy.

Along with swapping in and out new riffs for each section, Obama has learned how to adapt the speech in tone and in some of its details for each audience. This was most conspicuous in South Carolina, where he engaged in a running repartee with his mostly black audiences and sprinkled his words with local vernacular.


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