I hope it’s not an example of the Democrats’ organizational muscle. But this morning I’ve had to abandon the Fleet Center and retreat to a local Starbucks to find reliable Internet access that’ll allow me to post some updates.
Yesterday while Barack Obama was speaking, I was making my way around the convention hall floor, trying to listen to the speech while gauging audience reactions. In some ways this is a far inferior way to absorb a speech than simply to watch it on your television screen at home. And I wasn’t following every moment word for word. But at some point, perhaps a half or two-thirds into the speech, I could sense a difference in the feel of the crowd and the tenor of Obama’s voice. He was electrifying the crowd in a way you seldom see a politician manage to pull off. And I realized I needed to get down as close to the podium as I could.
So I made my way down through the several delegations on the right side of the convention floor and settled in about thirty feet down from Obama’s left. What struck me first about Obama is something I’ve only really seen clearly before in Bill Clinton.
In most politicians — in most public speakers really — you can always sense a sort of double motion. You can sense their constant awareness of what they should be doing before they do it, and their inability to get the two to match up. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that you sense their consciousness of self, the visibility of their artifice, like an actor who looks like he’s acting, even if the technical points are hit more or less on key.
Clinton was always different. Whether there was artifice or not, it was seldom visible. His rapport with crowds or individuals was (and is) intuitive. The mastery of voice, sound and expression was always complete. And you could see that Monday night.
As it happens, I don’t think that quality in a public speaker is something that can be learned. And on a fundamental level, I don’t think it’s a matter of artifice, though clearly Clinton has a rhetorical bag of tricks he returns to again and again. It’s an emotional quality, an element of personality — part of that undefinable quality of personal charisma. And that was what was radiating from Obama last night.
This was the passage I found the most powerful, and only in part because of the bare text of the words.
Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Another point on Obama, to which we’ll return. Every great public speaker has an emotional touchstone, a tenor that resonates through all they say and do. Clinton’s was empathy and expressive emotion — something that many people gravitated to irresistibly, and others recoiled from. In that regard, Obama seems altogether different. That Clintonite element is barely present with him. The hallmarks are grace and power, even force. (Watch the hands and the eyes.) And that worked well with last night’s invocation of national unity.