THE STATE OF THE UNION'S ORATORY
In the name of full-disclosure, I am pro-life so I won't be voting for John "I don't let my belief that baby humans are getting killed in abortion influence my voting patterns" Kerry. It is my first and primary reason for opposing Kerry. My second reason is every other position he takes on every issue of which I am aware.
But as an artist, I wanted to say a few words about Kerry's speech last night more in terms of its oratorical style than its content.
Clearly, there is a marked departure in style between Kerry and his predecessor Democratic standard-bearer, Bill "I feel your pain" [pause for crowd to roar and shake fists] Clinton. (Did I just step all over my point?)
My idea of a great speech, is one that combines style with substance. Great turns of phrase decorating essential truths that sting to the heart. A great leader leads his hearers to want to be heros. His audience receives the implicit message, "You have power." It is a sleight of speech in which, by seeming to be reminding them who they are, he actually wills them into being better than they are. His words are weighted with truth and passionate belief, that for most other people would seem idealism. "He speaks with authority, not like the scribes."
Clinton is a true demagogue, and, tragically, his style has become the default oratorical style of the Democratic party in the last twenty years. I marvel when people say what great speeches he gives, because, honestly, I always find him boring, pandering, and so, insulting. A demagogue is someone who whips a crowd into a frenzy by alternately appealing to their sense of superiority and then victimhood. He communicates to an audience, "[Some other group] is taking your power. But you and I are smarter than they are." The demagogue's words are weighted with cynicism in what makes a speech a protracted sneer. A demagogue doesn't so much motivate his hearers as flatter them. He creates a mob not a community.
The usual pattern of a Clintonian speech tends to unfold in the following kind of dialogue with the attendant crowd which invariably transitions into a mob.
Clinton: 'Those people over there,' they are hypocrites [implied: "not like you and me"]!
Crowd: (roaring, stomping and clapping) YEAH!!!!
Clinton: I'm here to tell you something true today. Something 'those people over there' won't tell you. [implied: because they are not as smart as you and I are...or else because they are not as virtuous as you and I, and so they can't face the truth]
Crowd: (clapping, roaring and stomping) BILL!!! BILL! BILL!!!!!!!!!
Clinton: I'm here to tell you, that GRASS is GREEN!!!!!!!
Crowd: (jumping and waving...and screaming) YEAH!!!!! (roars) BILL!! BILL!!
Clinton: Is it green?!
CRowd: (ripping up seats and throwing them in the air) YES! YES! YESS!!!!! GREEN! GREEN! GREEN!
I was impressed with the way Kerry seemed so intent on moving away from the Clintonian style of demagoguery. I was wondering why he was rushing so fast through the speech, but then it seemed to me he was trying to control the impulse of the mob to respond to his every pause with a dutiful roar. You could tell the audience was disconcerted by this new pattern of oratory. The cameras caught people several times with quizzical looks as they were stilted mid-roar by Kerry pushing forward to his next point. They have been so well trained in the last twenty years, that they didn't know what part they were supposed to play if not as punctuators.
Unfortunately, as welcome as the effort to short-circuit the punctuators is, it didn't help Kerry in terms of oratorical effect. In his hurry, he was hard to follow. The opposite of wooden is not fast. The opposite of wooden is passionate. The only issues that Kerry has demonstrated any real passion for in his long senatorial career has been his own political future (not sympathetic), securing the legal right to abortion (also not sympathetic with most Americans), and preserving the planet from over-population by poor people (also problematic with the masses of poor people who vote Democratic).
I found Kerry's hand gestures got really annoying by about mid-point of his speech. He was so clearly trying to counter his reputation of Al Gorish woodenness, that he took to waving and pointing and making little triangles and smoothing gestures. I felt like I was watching a stilted hula dance.
In terms of content, I get the reasons for his constant harping on his Vietnam service, although I found it boorish. A good speech injects personal anecdotes, but shouldn't amount to the speaker saying to the audience, "YEs, Yes Yes I do! I've got medals, how about you?" I thought it was fascinating how the real issues that separate Kerry from Bush were either obliquely referenced or left out at all.
The fact is, the liberals, feminists and gay rights crowd are laying down their lives for Kerry because he will put pro-choice judges on the Supreme Court, revoke all Bush's pro-life Executive orders, support gay marriage, and, yeah, that's pretty much it. These are the principle areas in which Kerry differs from Bush. So, why not mention them? Shouldn't he want to put himself in relief for the issues about which he feels the strongest? Instead, the content of Kerry's speech was an unremarkable catalogue of positions that really don't differ that much in substance from the positions of his opponent. At least Stephen Douglas, who might be reckoned Kerry's ideological ancestor, was very clear in all of his speeches that he was basically about one thing: Preserving the right of people to own other people as property. "If that's your issue. I'm your guy."
I find Kerry's reticence to own his defining issues, oddly comforting.
But as oratory, he's really quite dreadful, unfortunately.