Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Stars of Past and Future

A stirring political oration, the kind that moblizes your fellow citizen to action, is, according to Thucydides and Aristotle, the highest achievement of politics. Now, 2,500 years after the Athenians gave birth to democracy, the most powerful nation on earth would rather watch guys eat centipedes on TV than hear soaring panegyric from esteemed politicians.

Actually that's an unfair way of putting it, because it is hard to blame folks for ignoring party nominating conventions. Due to modern reforms, a party determines its nominee months before the convention. A modern convention has none of the backroom deal cutting and floor fights that make for good drama. Instead, national conventions have become a lavish exercise in marketing and branding, designed mainly to provide 2 minute sound bites on "Good Morning America" for those 32 narcissistic, lazy "swing voters" that this election will apparently be decided by. It's a wholly prefab event, generating no real news.

That said, a national convention is still the forum where a party can communicate most directly to citizens. As such, these quaint gatherings are still vitally important. And a powerful speech at a convention, even one that doesn't do more than lay out some vague, broadly accepted principles, is still good for the soul in that it affirms, if only temporarily, that politics can be a higher calling, not just for the orator, but for the listeners roused into action.

The Past

It's been a long time since I was genuinely excited by a political candidate, by someone who will move me to drop everything and work tirelessly to get him elected. The last one was, in fact, Bill Clinton in '92. Despite his flaws and squandered promise, he remains for me the most compelling public figure of our era, the only man I might line up 2 to 3 hours to shake hands with (but not 6 or 7, which is the length of wait to get his book signed). His speech on Monday night showed again why he's an epochal political figure.

Clinton's the only speaker I've ever heard who can make economic numbers and factoids sing. He's got a unique gift of spouting off a litany of facts, figures, and wonkish proposals without sounding boring. Unlike nearly every other public figure, he'll got six or seven different pitches in one speech: conversational one minute, a preacher the next, combative when need be, good-humored throughout.

Substantively, Clinton's genius is framing the debate and making the case for Democratic policies: he'll identify where the country needs to go, how to get there, and what's been done so far, using those facts and figures to support the case. We're moving closer and closer towards an interconnected and interdependent world, Clinton states, and the Democrats have the right vision and the right policies for that world. Thus far, Kerry hasn't been able to approach this kind of winning rhetorical framework. Let's hope he can articulate a Democratic vision that makes sense on Thursday.

The Future

Delivering the DNC's keynote address amid a tsunami of hype, Obama actually surpassed the sky-high expectations party activists have set for him. But his speech is very different from Clinton's. Where Clinton argues, persuades, and coaxes with overwhelming self-confidence befitting his stature, Obama tells stories and paints pictures with graceful self-possession. His speech tells an evocative story of Democratic America, a land of opportunity, which is paradoxically an united America. Obama provides the thematic backbone to Clinton's meat. His speech crescendos with this wonderful passage:

John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope.

I’m not talking about blind optimism here - the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Among great Democratic speakers, Obama's easy eloquence -- his smoothly impassioned speaking style -- is more like Mario Cuomo's than either Clinton or Jesse Jackson's full-throated preachy wordplay. It's a terrifically appealing speaking style, and I remain convinced this guy has the best shot of becoming our first black president.

Clinton, as the pundits keep saying, is a rock star. Now Obama is one, too.

The Present

As for Thursday, I know Kery will try to somehow stake his leadership qualities on his badass Vietnam experience. I really hope he'll do more than that. Clinton correctly diagnosed the world as heading irretrievably more interdependent; the role of government is guide us through these times of rapid change, encouraging growth but cushioning those left behind. What's Kerry's vision? Will he finally be able to boil his Iraq votes/plans down to something digestible to every day people?

Lastly, Clinton, along with Gore and Carter, laid a theme that must be repeated again and again: good leadership requires not only strength but wisdom. The GOP has cleverly defined Bush's blind stubborness and aggression as the avatars of leadership. But "decisiveness" and "resolve" aren't necessaily the traits I'm looking for when a captain is leading the ship down the cliff. Kerry task is to redefine leadership as a combination of decisiveness and intelligence, of making the right choice. He needs to make it a choice between Goliath and Solomon.