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Cure for Insomnia? Turn on Obama’s Speeches

Posted on June 22 2010 9:00 am
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Obama’s speeches, unfortunately, have tended to induce narcolepsy in most living creatures.

When he was a presidential candidate, Barack Obama famously extolled the power of words. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” he exclaimed.

“I have a dream” — just words. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — just words. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” — just words. Just speeches.

Candidate Obama was right. Words, thoughts, ideas, speeches — these can, and sometimes do, profoundly shape the course of history. Which is why it is so disappointing that, as president, Obama typically has been at a loss for words.

Consider, for instance, last week’s “Green Energy” speech: It was a dud. The speech bombed because it failed to capture the historical moment. President Obama simply is not in synch with the historical zeitgeist and it showed.

Yet many conservatives have been making excuses for Obama.

He could not have delivered a great speech, they argue, because the occasion did not allow for it. The BP oil spill fiasco, they say, was a mind-numbing industrial accident which hardly summons forth deep or inspirational rhetoric.

“The accident was an accident,” explains Commentary magazine’s John Podhoretz.

And the cleanup after the accident is one of those godawful, uninspiring, unthrilling, and highly confusing tasks that inevitably follow any accident. Nobody seems quite to have known what to do and when.

And there were and are conflicting crosscurrents involving the potential environmental damage from the cleanup itself that cannot be wished or willed away through strong “leadership.”

Nonsense. The 1986 Space Shuttle disaster also was an accident; and yet President Reagan and his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, found great and inspirational meaning in that tragedy. And so it was that they wrote lines which will long be remembered:

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue…

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Reagan delivered a great speech because he understood history. He had a deep appreciation for what the historical moment demanded. Obama, by contrast, has been unable to find any deeper meaning or significance in the BP oil spill disaster.

In fact, far from asserting that “nothing ends here,” Obama instead has called for a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. Thus whereas Reagan marched confidently forward in the face of adversity, Obama does the opposite: he retreats backwards.

Obama is right about one thing: the great American rhetoric of the past involved so much more than “just words.” It involved a deep and abiding sense of our nation’s manifest destiny. Obama, however, lacks that historical sense; and so his rhetoric is weak and subpar. Thus he typically delivers “just words.”

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