The Magazine

Sweet Nothings

A close reading of The Speech.

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Anyone who wants to understand Barack Obama would do well to stay away from the radio and the TV. Obama is a theatrical presence. That's what it means to be "charismatic": To an unnerving degree his appeal relies on sight and sound rather than sense. Better, in my opinion, to stick to the printed word. On paper (or the computer screen) his words can be thought about and chewed over. You can understand him at your own pace, undistracted by that rich baritone, the regal bearing, the excellent drape of his Burberry suits.

The printed word has its problems too, of course. You really need to be on your toes if you're going to get anything out of a newspaper's election coverage. You've got to tune your ear to euphemism and translate as you go. So last Friday, having missed the television broadcasts of Obama's speech in Berlin the day before, I read the Washington Post with a cocked ear, and when I saw that the speech was described as "broadly thematic" and "sober and serious" I knew exactly what it meant: a boring speech full of blah blah blah.

And so it was. In the Post as elsewhere, as much coverage was devoted to the speech's setting--the sprawling crowds and the dramatic backdrop and the tingling sense of anticipation--as to the speech itself. The paper didn't even bother to print verbatim excerpts, as it usually does with a big-time address. The occasion had been taken as an invitation to deliver a summary of Obama's view of America's role in the world. When his handlers decided to schedule a speech in Berlin, they teed up comparisons with the portentous speeches that Presidents Kennedy and Reagan had delivered there.

Instead, in the heart of Europe, before 200,000 breathless admirers, Obama pulled himself up to his full height, lifted his chin, unlimbered those eloquent hands, and said nothing at all.

Obama's "nothing" is sometimes interesting anyway; there are pointers in the vacuousness, as I saw when I read the full text on his campaign's website. He began the speech, as he often does, with a summary of his own life history, which elided into a history of the Cold War--mixing the two together, with his customary grandiosity. The history was nicely written up but not news. And the lesson he drew from it was, to be kind, idiosyncratic: The West's victory in the Cold War, he said, proved that "there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

This will come as a surprise to anyone who lived through the Cold War or has even read about it. The thing about wars, even cold ones, is that the world doesn't stand as one; that's why there's a war. And in the Cold War the Soviet side was as united as the West; more so, probably. Left out of Obama's history was any mention of the ferocious demonstrations against the United States in the streets of Paris and West Berlin during the 1960s and 1980s, when American presidents were routinely depicted as priapic cowboys and psychopaths. Probably a fair number of the older members of Obama's audience had been hoisting those banners themselves 25 years ago.

So if "standing as one" didn't win the Cold War, what did? Obama didn't stop to answer, since his own reading of history seems to deny the premise of the question. Instead he hustled on to the present moment. Now, he said, "we are called upon again." To do what? Presumably to stand as one all over again, in the face of "new promise and new peril." Included in the latter are terrorism, global warming, and nuclear proliferation. But those perils aren't the worst of it. "The greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another."

The sentence is the heart of the speech and an instance of Obama's big weakness--his preference for the rhetorical flourish over a realistic account of things as they are. Most politicians share the weakness, and the preference has proved wildly attractive to Obama's supporters. But think it through: "New walls to divide us" is just a metaphor, a trope. A trope can't be the "greatest danger of all." A terrorist setting off a nuclear bomb in London--that's a danger. A revolution in Islamabad--that's a danger. A figure of speech is just a figure of speech.