The Magazine

The Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama

Some of it may sound familiar.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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They don't put it this way, of course, which just confirms a suspicion that's been creeping up on some of us for months: As a speech-giver, a man who has wowed the nation with the power of his language, Barack Obama is getting away with murder. Rhetorically, he is a master of le baloney.

It's not clear that Obama himself is even aware of this. His sincerity is self-evident and is one of the qualities that draw people to him, along with those eloquent hands, the grin, that voice as smooth and rich as molasses. His speeches are theatrical events, not intellectual excursions. On his website the videos of his most acclaimed speeches have proved much more popular than the transcripts. As a candidate he fits a public that prefers the sensation of words to the words themselves. His speeches are meant to be succumbed to rather than thought about.

But what if you do think about them?

The first thing you might notice is how familiar Obama's speeches sound on the page. He ran into trouble earlier in the year when he lifted a rhetorical trope from his friend Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. ("Just words?" Patrick had said, before quoting famous lines from Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy, and other big talkers.) The charge of plagiarism, made by Obama's opponents, was overheated, and also more complicated than the Clintonites probably realized. David Axelrod, Deval Patrick's campaign manager, came up with the "just words" refrain in 2006, as a way of rebutting charges that his candidate was all talk. Two years later, when Obama was hit with the same charge, he was lucky to have the same campaign manager. Axelrod dusted off the old locution and handed it to his new client. Obama was thus being accused of stealing lines that weren't his from a politician who took them from a ghostwriter who gave them to Obama. In the daisy-chain transactions between politicians and their consultants, there are no property rights.

Besides, the charge of filching betrays a misunderstanding of political speechmaking. Professional public speakers, whether politicians or stand-up comics, take stuff from each other, no matter who penned the words. The line between allusion and theft, between homage and plagiarism, is traditionally thin. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, for the people, his listeners knew Daniel Webster's "Second Reply to Hayne," up to that time the most quoted piece of rhetoric in American history. In it Webster spoke of a government that was "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." Webster's phrase was part of the public memory, every literate person was familiar with it, and no one would have thought to accuse Lincoln of trying to steal it.

Obama's case is slightly different. When he does filch--notwithstanding the "just words" affair--hardly anyone notices. He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. "Politics is broken," he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he's tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, "politics is broken," or if he's stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that "politics is broken." Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

Or perhaps he's just guilty of a lack of originality. On the page, deprived of his baritone, without the prop of his steely jaw, his speeches limp from one shopworn phrase to another. When he tells his audiences they need "a president who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear," he might be quoting, gulp, Geraldine Ferraro, who as a vice presidential candidate in 1984 liked to tell audiences that "Leadership is not just telling people what they want to hear, it's telling them what they need to know." It's a timeless principle that can be found in dozens of pop business books, too--the kind read in his formative years by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used it when he ran for governor in 2003.