Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Tale of Two Speeches

by Dan Tynan

Our little burg has been a hotbed of political activity over the past 36 hours. Sunday night I had the privilege of watching Hillary Clinton deliver her stump speech on a glorious spring evening against the backdrop of a purple sky and the USS North Carolina. Monday afternoon I got to watch the Obama traveling medicine show along with 5,000 adoring fans at UNCW's Trask Auditorium.

Two liberal/moderate Democratic candidates, two speeches nearly identical in substance and light years apart in style.

I'd guess roughly 2000 people gathered to hear Hillary on the Federal courthouse steps, next to the Cape Fear River. We spent 45 minutes in a line that snaked along Front Street and down Market, slowly working our way to the security checkpoint. Overall, it felt like a well choreographed event, even though it was scheduled at the last possible moment and Hillary started 30 minutes late.

She was not the cold, cut-throat bitch she often appears to be on television. Hillary was surprisingly warm and personable, and had done her homework – peppering the speech with references to Wilmington and the local economy for the first five minutes.

Then she turned into a policy wonk – going into specifics about her plans for providing universal health care, giving tax breaks to lower income people, making it easier to pay for college, etc. Textbook Democratic speech-making, handing out a little treat to each constituency. Interestingly, she seemed to be running on her husband's record – hearkening back to the economic boom times of the 1990s – while skipping over things like hubby's championing of NAFTA, welfare reform, and other things that probably wouldn't sit well with her base.

It was a polished, professional speech filled with predictable applause lines (Iraq, the price of gas, saving the environment, anything to do with “the two oilmen in the White House”) but rarely personal and never truly passionate. The response was enthusiastic but not overwhelming (except for the woman next to me, who kept shrieking directly into my ear – it's still ringing).

The next day was Obama's turn. Possibly because it was held on a college campus, but most attendees seemed at least a decade younger on average. (And Obama's volunteers were much, much hotter.) Predictably the crowd was also more racially mixed, though I'd guess it was still at least two-thirds white.

Hillary is a savvy, skilled politician, but Obama is a Rock Star. Maybe because it was indoors and the crowd was larger, maybe because you had to scramble to get a ticket (this was a total pain in the ass – I tried three times and came away empty, only to have two land in my lap that morning), but the excitement in the room was visceral. The stomping, whistling, clapping, cheering crowd exploded when Obama arrived on the dot at 1 pm.

Impossibly thin, wearing a baggy white shirt and gray slacks, sleeves rolled up and tie carelessly knotted, he was the antithesis of Hillary packed into her prim and spotless pale blue suit.

On policy, Obama's speech hardly differed from Clinton's. (You can hear a recording of it here.) You could have swapped parts of hers out for his and never known the difference. But when it comes to delivery, they're from different planets.

Obama has developed a terrific rhetorical style where he starts out quietly, strolling across the stage, talking about the problems you and I share like he's in your living room, just plain folks chatting. Then gradually he builds. The volume rises, the phrasing gets crisper and more repetitive. He stops strolling and pauses, tensed in the center of the stage, punctuating the staccato rhythms of his speech with his hands.

“...and so when I decided to run it was in part because I believed that the size of our challenges had outstripped the capacity of a broken politics to solve. And I was convinced that the American people wanted something different, they wanted something new. That they were tired of a politics that was all about tearing each other down, they wanted a politics that was all about lifting the country up. I was convinced of that. I was convinced the American people didn't want spin and PR. They wanted straight talk, truthfulness and honesty from their leadership. And I was convinced that the American people no longer wanted to be divided. They didn't want to be divided by race, they didn't want to be divided by religion, they didn't want to be divided by region, they wanted to come together to solve the problems of the United States of America.”

The crowd explodes in a standing O. Then he'd wait for it to die down and do it all over again. Only now it would be about health care. Or college loans. No Child Left Behind. The housing crunch. The price of oil and global warming. The war in Iraq. Build and release, build and release.

Most of the seats directly in front of the stage were occupied by African Americans dressed for church. They were intimately familiar with this kind of rhythm and bobbed to it in call and response like they were sitting in the pew. Amen, brother. Say it, Obama. Yes We Can.

“Lately my opponents have been trying to make this election about me instead of about you. They've been trying to say, well, you know we don't know him that well, we don't know what he believes, we don't know about his values. Despite the fact I wrote two books – it's all there, what I believe, think, what my story is. I try to explain to them ... how I've seen this country open up opportunity for people who are willing to work hard. They don't expect government to solve all their problems. All they hope is there's a handle there, they can get a handle on moving up. That if they work hard, they're going be able to find a job that pays a living wage. If they work hard, they'll be able to send their child to a good school. If they work hard, they're going to be able to get health care. If they work hard they're going to be able to retire with some dignity and respect. That's why I love this country. That's the change I've seen in my life. That's what every American deserves. That's what America is all about. That's what we're fighting for in this campaign. That's why you're here today. And if you vote for me... if you stand up with me, I promise you we will not just win this nomination, we will win this general election and you and I together will change this country and change the world.”

And that's where it should have ended. But Obama stuck around to answer questions, and the energy waned. He droned a bit in some of his answers, dragging in points he'd forgotten to make in his speech. An elderly woman came to his rescue, going on about clean water and clean politics, garnering huge roars from the crowd and setting up Obama for his best line of the afternoon.

“I'd like to answer your question, but first I have a question for you,” he said. “Will you be my running mate?”

Hillary and Obama both talked about those of us victimized by the last eight years of blinding stupidity, corruption, and ineptitude, but Obama also talked about the parties who've benefited from the Bush era -- the oil companies, the pharmaceutical firms, the car makers, the financiers. He boasted how he went to Detroit to tell them they had to make more fuel efficient cars and to Wall Street to tell them they needed to tamp down their raging greed -- and how his audiences there didn't give him any standing O's. He made a clear distinction between candidates who were in the pocket of Corporate America and those, like himself, who allegedly are not.

McCain has made a deal with the devil. Hillary's big plan is to turn down the thermostat in Hell a few degrees and serve ice cream on Sundays. Obama is saying that, if we pull together, we can take on the forces of Satan and defeat them.

If elected, he will probably get smacked down. Evil has been with us a long long time. The devil has too many friends in Washington and they're on both sides of the aisle. But after hearing him speak yesterday I know at least he's going to try. And that, for me, makes all the difference.


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