March 1, 2011
President Obama's Yawning HeightsBy Robert Morrison
Aleksandr Zinoviev wrote a book under the old Soviet Union called The Yawning Heights. He used it to describe, almost obscenely, the speeches of Communist Party boss Leonid Brezhnev. The Russian words for "glistening" and "yawning" are very close and with Comrade Leonid's drunken slurring, "the glistening heights of socialism" to which he was forever summoning his chained peoples came out "yawning heights."
President Obama is surely no drunk. And we are not yet a captive people. But President Obama is also a bore. It's not his fault. It's socialism's fault. Irish poet Oscar Wilde was once asked what he thought of world socialism. Wilde archly replied: "I think it would consume too many evenings." He was right about that.
Socialism politicizes everything -- literature, medicine, science, law, education, culture, religion, sports, all of life. And that ultimately makes socialism a crushing bore. President Obama is finding that tens of millions of Americans have tuned him out as he summons us to the heights. His audience for the State of the Union Address is down 18% this year over his first year.
Part of this is his speechwriter, a 29-year old who seems never to have had any contact with literature, American history, poetry, or the Bible. The speeches he crafts for this president are textbook examples of ennui.
Two million people gathered two years ago on the Mall to hear President Obama take the Oath of Office. It was assuredly an historic moment. But now, barely 25 months later, can anyone-supporter or opponent-recall a single memorable line from Inaugural Address? "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." He said that?
Mr. Obama has also suffered from the 24/7 news cycle. Franklin Roosevelt "Fireside Chats" were offered sparingly. FDR knew the presidency was a precious national resource and he did not squander it. His major speeches were carefully crafted for maximum effect.
Compare Mr. Obama at Normandy with President Ronald Reagan at the same location twenty-five years earlier. Reagan spoke movingly of "the Boys of Pointe du Hoc"-our heroic Rangers-in cadences that gave echoes of Henry V and Gettysburg.
Mr. Obama was said by Newsweek's Evan Thomas to hover over the nations at Normandy "like a god." Awesome, but what did he say there?
Hand our leader a foreign crisis -- like Libya. What does the president have to say about that? "This violence is unacceptable." We don't need a $400,000-a-year Commander-in-Chief and his $172,000-a-year speechwriter to tell us that.
He's not the only war leader, by the way, with this problem. For all the hoopla about the movie, The King's Speech, I doubt that any ticket-buyers can quote a single line of that much labored over radio address. His Majesty overcomes his stammer, by the Grace of God, but brings forth a rhetorical mouse.
Mr. Obama is still a charismatic figure. He has a deep and sonorous voice. He shares this much with FDR, CBS Newsman Edward R. Murrow, and Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart. Those smokers all had wonderful speaking voices. The way he speaks would be truly marvelous-if he had anything interesting to say.
Because Mr. Obama is boring does not mean he will not be re-elected. The media will do its best to puff anything he says or does. And the GOP is making noises about the "charisma of competence." Read in that "adventures in accounting."
Try to imagine a scintillating evening in the company of Richard Nixon. Listen to those tapes, if you dare. Jerry Ford may have taken the prize as the most boring president, but he came within a whisker of being re-elected in 1976. He was up against Jimmy Carter, however, who is nobody's idea of a stimulating conversationalist.
Gov. Mitch Daniels wants us all to get over Ronald Reagan. Part of Reagan's appeal to Americans in general and to conservatives in particular is that he was a Great Communicator. He modestly said it had been his privilege to communicate great ideas. He quoted the Founders more than any of the four presidents before him. And more than any of the four presidents who came after him. Maybe the reason Reagan was so great is that he didn't think himself great.
When Ted Kennedy toasted Democratic Wise Man, Averell Harriman, the Massachusetts pol said Harriman at ninety was not so old: "Averell, you are only half as old as Ronald Reagan's ideas." All the liberal partygoers roared their approval.
President Reagan graciously responded to the jibe with thanks to the senator. "The Constitution is almost two hundred years old, and that's where I get all my ideas," the president said. Reagan was winsome, witty, and wise. He was never a bore. And we'll never get over our need to such a leader.
Robert Morrison works at the Family Research Council.