March 20, 2007
The Linguistic Case Against Barack ObamaBy Patrick O'Hannigan
Barack Obama may have frightened Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton into rewriting the civil rights section of her autobiography (was that erstwhile "Goldwater Girl" really a staunch supporter of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. even though Goldwater himself was not?), but the man whose claims to fame consist solely of having made a more-polished-than-average speech at his party's national convention, and having defeated Alan Keyes for a Senate seat from Illinois, is not yet ready for prime time. Obama has never had to punch above his weight, as they say in boxing.
Obama sauntered into prominence by beating a hamstrung candidate in a state where Lincoln's oratorical gifts can no longer claim even the recognition afforded to My Favorite Martian (in a recent budget speech, the governor of Illinois said he didn't believe God intended anyone to be without health insurance).
Keyes can keep up with Obama verbally, as Obama well knew, but he has eccentricities enough for two candidates. It's almost never politically astute to declare your opponent someone whom Jesus would not vote for, as Keyes did. Moreover, Keyes had no real money, and relied almost exclusively on free media to get his message out.
Since finding the limelight, Obama has given the rest of us only rhetoric that won't stand up to scrutiny, much less "lexpionage" (defined by the WordSpy web site as "the sleuthing of new words and phrases").
Take his catchphrase, "the audacity of hope." As some pundits have observed, hope is not especially audacious when you have a Pepsodent smile, a diploma from Hawaii's most prestigious high school, and a stint as editor of the Harvard Law Review, together with multicultural credentials even Tiger Woods might envy (Kansas and Kenya? Get out!).
But forget Obama's biography for a minute. Look again at that catchphrase itself. It ought to be on a church billboard before some priest or minister preaches about what it must have been like for disciples to walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus three days after Jesus had been crucified. It might also advertise a sermon about the centurion who told Jesus that there was no need for him to come to his house, because healing could be done through a simple word of command. In either case, that was audacious hope, which -- we have on good authority -- typically travels in the company of faith and love.
My biggest beef with Obama is that his glibness cheapens language in precisely the way that John Edwards cheapened logic while channeling the thoughts of an unborn baby for a jury, and John Kerry cheapened honor by slandering people he would later call his "band of brothers" as baby killers who gunned and raped their way through Southeast Asia.
Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee wrote only one book apiece. Barack Obama already has two autobiographies and a cookbook in the hopper.
In the first chapter of "The Audacity of Hope," Obama congratulates himself for recognizing the alleged risk of talking as though a citizenry grappling with "globalization, dizzying technological change, cutthroat politics and unremitting culture wars" had a shared language with which to discuss our ideals. As an example of good judgment, this would be more effective uncoupled from a paragraph that celebrates "values and ideals" that "remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans." But having found common ground that "binds us together despite our differences," Obama promptly ignores his own campaign-trail experience to lament the lack of it.
Too much of his other rhetoric is equally scattershot. Remember the speech that brought Obama to national attention? People praised him to the rafters for it at the time, although Zell Miller's spitballing stem-winder to the Republicans a few days later was more memorable. Unfortunately, the transcript of Obama's remarks shows only pudding where there should have been meat. After pointing to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence as a source of American pride, Obama turned the cold clarity of self-evident truths into schmaltz less than a paragraph later, in a wretchedly wrongheaded paraphrase of the Founding Fathers. "That is the true genius of America," he said, "a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles." No one challenged Obama for confusing Thomas Jefferson with Winnie the Pooh, and the man's gotten a free ride since then.
Like most politicians, Obama exaggerates, as was made clear by his recent pronouncement to a reporter from the Des Moines Register that nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people. The freshman senator is adept at credential-polishing as well. One retired mayor put his finger on the problem after hearing Obama speak March 16th. "I kept watching him thinking he is so great, but then there is the experience thing," Ray Gagnon told a reporter for the Boston Globe. "I mean he says he's had 10 years in elected office. Well, so did I on the City Council. Does that count?"
Obama's cynicism-is-our-biggest-enemy shtick may be sincere, but unlike Ronald Reagan's "morning in America," or Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "only thing we have to fear is fear itself," it's cheap. Irishman that he was, Reagan wielded hope like a shillelagh, using it on striking air traffic controllers at home and Communists abroad. Obama hasn't gotten past sunny-side up notions straight out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? In fact, if you like musicals, his kind of hope is all over the place.
Remember Finian's Rainbow ("On the day I was born, said me father said he, I've an elegant legacy waitin' for ye-‘tis a rhyme for your lips, and a song for your heart, to sing it whene'er the world falls apart")? Then there's "The Music Man," where Harold Hill was nearly run out of River City for selling the "audacity of hope" in a boys' band with a smile and a make-believe music degree.
Mark Steyn invoked The Sound of Music for the Illinois senator back in January ("how do you solve a problem like Obama?"). Certainly Obama's father had once been a lonely goatherd, albeit in Africa rather than in Europe. But Steyn would be the first to admit that even when Julie Andrews was singing to the von Trapp children about her favorite things, everyone from little Gretl up through lovely Liesl also understood that there were Nazis to fight.
What Obama seems to grasp intuitively goes no deeper than how to scare his distaff colleague from New York, and which way to turn for a profile shot. He's selling a remix of the best song from "Little Orphan Annie," but it's slightly off: "When I'm stuck with a day that's gray and lonely, I stick out my chin, and grin, and say, Raise taxes! And spending! This war should be ending! And donkeys will lead the way!"
Columnists trying to grease Obama's entrance to the Oval Office may don poodle skirts or pompadours for a fawning chorus of "You're the one that I want! You're the only one I want! Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!," but (as we should have learned from the 42nd president) glib and good are not the same.