JOHN MCWHORTER NOVEMBER 3, 2010
Also, somewhere along the line, the Tea Party stars appear to have been taught that effective speechmaking requires regular incantation of swaggery little jabs of a “Make My Day” redolence. Presumably Ronald Reagan is the model, reinforced by Sarah Palin’s fondness for lines about pit bulls and reloading. But this works best when there is a certain “there” there to back it up; call it star quality, which all will admit even Palin has.
Poor Ms. O’Donnell does not. In her concession speech, her best attempt at a “Make My Day” line was “We’re not gonna stop fighting either!” – but even that would have worked better if she hadn’t giggled after she said it. Paul was closer to the mark with his regular insertions of promises to make Democrats “deliberate upon this,” a phraseology carrying, in modern “Amurican,” an air of challenge along the lines of a call to, say, suck on the “this” in question.
But the thisses he elaborated upon were phrased too flatly to lend any momentum. Obama in 2008 would have had the head start of being able to intone “deliberate upon this” with a cadence that would ineffably sum up just enough of a street corner echo to seem spiky without being threatening. Then, he would have known to follow the punch with compact jabs rather than tenets out of the Libertarian hymnal. And Obama wouldn’t be caught dead brazenly misquoting Thomas Jefferson.
Carl Paladino’s Eastwoodesque gesture was his “Make no mistake, you haven’t heard the last of Carl Paladino” – good, theatrically at least, what with brandishing the baseball bat and all. But once again, no follow-through – he then meandered into a salute to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe in his case it doesn’t matter, as we have indeed heard the last of him in any serious way. Christine O’Donnell, on the other hand, surely does not intend to go gentle into that good night, upon which we can only dimly glean a sense of pith in her closing with “We’ve got a lot of food, we’ve got the room all night, so God Bless You, so let’s party.”
“We’ve got the room all night so God Bless You”? How is the blessing a consequence of the duration of the room’s reservation? Nitpicky, sure – but this baggy phraseology is typical of O’Donnell’s guilelessly come-as-you-are public speaking. She is, like Sarah Palin, typical of a new generation of politicians who came of age in the eighties, hopelessly removed from even an echo of the time when there was an expectation that a speech was, well, a speech.
As such, to listen fairly to O’Donnell presents a challenge. Can we receive a starkly unadorned voice as authoritative? Can we train ourselves to attend to the sincerity amidst the nachos-and-beer colloquial flavor, the artless pauses, the goofy asides, and especially in O’Donnell’s case, the tinny timbre? She, close to my age and, like me, born in Philadelphia and attending college in New Jersey, sounds exactly like countless white women of a certain demographic I knew at Rutgers who would never have dreamed of running for public office. Or, if they had, they would have fashioned themselves to come off more Alison Janney and less Teri Garr.
Marco Rubio, in his victory speech, was the exception, and showed as he often has why he is the Tea Party’s real secret weapon. Starting out with gushy God talk and closing by stressing that he is a “son of exiles,” Rubio is – let’s face it – a better Obama in his way. His Christianity will always be clear to those who care, and his foreign forebears are ones who fled Communism. At first we were to suppose that Obama’s mongrelism made him “like America,” but the leftist Kenyan business is ripe for the Becks and D’Souzas among us to frame as alien, never mind that Indonesia is a Muslim country. Rubio’s foreignness is more cuddly, immune to Fox News-style demagoguery.
Plus Rubio is a natural talker. No stagy incantations of lines based on things other people said long ago; no giggling; no props; no wandering off topic. He can rub a noun and a verb together, with minimal attendance to notes. As a result, like Bill Clinton, he seems intelligent in a way that Paladino and O’Donnell do not, and approachably human and on the ground in a way that Paul, despite his active mind, cannot.
No surprise, then, that Rubio has been somewhat chary of the Tea Party mantle. Yet he is, in his gift with the word, a possible second chapter in the story of the America of Obama. It could well be that the next figure out of nowhere who sways the Independents with a muttly biography and a story about hope put over with a knack at the podium is a Republican.