Oratory is an important leadership tool, but not every great leader has it in his tool kit, while some lousy leaders have it in spades. Some of the greatest orators in American history led the old South into the disaster of secession and civil war, while the general who ultimately crushed them could barely utter two sentences in front of an audience. Likewise, there is no necessary correlation between rhetorical talent and (a) truth, (b) morality, or even (c) common sense. So much for the obvious.
Grading the oratory of presidents, then, would seem to be a business for rhetoricians, which I am not. But we are all consumers of political rhetoric, and the case of Barack Obama is special because we are consuming a product that is something other than advertised. I paid little attention to Obama's campaign, so I didn't hear him back when people were giving him rave reviews. Based on what I heard from other people, I assumed he was pretty good. He looked
like he must be pretty good. Like Woodrow Wilson, he looked like somebody who ought to give good speeches. But like Woodrow Wilson, he isn't.
Comparing the other presidents of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan was easily the best of them, when he was being serious. Reagan did I'm serious as hell
better than anybody. His jocular style was much less successful, though.
Clinton is okay, unless he's talking about himself. Clinton on Clinton is a slit-eyed study in clinical paranoid psychosis, but so long as he stays off that subject he gets the mark of competence. Like Reagan, the serious Clinton is much better than the knee-slapper Clinton.
Carter is okay. That might surprise people who remember that he helped to sink his presidency with a speech; the infamous "Malaise Speech". Not that he could have saved himself if he'd given another Gettysburg Address. But Carter really sounds pretty good to me, even when he's destroying himself. Carter has no jocular style. Everything he says is as serious as terminal cancer, even when he's smiling.
Both George Bushes are bad speakers. Which of them is worse is a matter for experts, but what makes them bad is the obvious discomfort they communicate. (George H. W. Bush was criticized for sitting and saying nothing while Reagan demolished him in the famous "Microphone Debate"; it was just as well he said nothing.)
Barack Obama makes them all look like Pericles. Unless he has become an entirely different person since he was on the campaign trail, I can't believe that anybody ever thought this guy was good. I can't believe that any Obama supporter
could endure one of his speeches without feeling like they're passing kidney stones.1. I Really, Really Hate Lounge Acts
In his live addresses, Obama reminds me of a comic who drops one phrase after another, fishing for something that the audience will react to. Since his audiences tend to be supplied by union locals, this is not too tough. [OBAMA: Fox News! AUDIENCE: Bwaaaaaaaaah!] After this, the audience does all the work, while Obama does a little strut and swagger.
This is as much fun to watch as family videos of somebody else's family.2. "Let me make one thing perfectly clear."
These seven words, which I think of as the Clinton-Lewinsky Preamble, should probably never be used by any speaker. If you must say it, say it only once per speech. And immediately follow it with something that ACTUALLY IS PERFECTLY CLEAR.3. Shouting Out to the Posse
This is okay when you're stumping for somebody on the campaign trail. But when you've called a nationally televised press conference and you start it with a bunch of shout-outs, it shows serious disrespect for other people's time.
Obama's use of shout-outs is excessive, and what makes it worse is that he actually refers to them as "shout-outs". If shout-outs must be used, they must be brief.
When calling a press conference to respond to a mass murder on a US military base, the shout-out should be omitted.4. Horrible - Just Horrible - Mixed Metaphors
"It was muddy in the ditch. It was dusty in the ditch."
Incredibly, he hasn't used this one just once. He keeps using it, over and over. Apparently no one dares to point it out to him, just as they won't tell him that he doesn't know how to pronounce "corpsman".5. Folks, Folks, Folks, Folks, Folks ...
Somebody poll-tested the word "folks" and decided that it was the greatest word in the English language - so great that the President of the United States must adopt it as an all-purpose indefinite pronoun. Obama is up to using it three times in one sentence.
Unless you're from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and are currently in
Vicksburg, Mississippi, you should not make a habit of constantly referring to people as "folks". 6. The Pause for Emphasis
Obama loves to pause for emphasis. He could golf nine holes during one of his pauses, and in his mind he probably is.
The pause for emphasis is effective when the speaker has just said something that is truly surprising or significant. When the speaker has just said something banal, predictable, or incomprehensible, then pausing afterwards is the opposite of effective.
During Obama's pauses, I find myself struggling to remember what it was he just said. Something about folks in a muddy, dusty ditch.