THE PLANK JUNE 4, 2008
We asked David Kusnet, Bill Clinton's former chief speechwriter and author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever, to give his impression of Barack Obama's declaration of victory speech.
Last night, Barack Obama's opponent was John McCain, not Hillary Clinton. And Obama revealed an advantage that should serve him well: He can make graciousness sound rousing.
Something of a stranger all his life, everywhere he has lived, studied, and worked--in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Morningside Heights, and the South Side of Chicago--Obama must have tried to put people at ease. He must have learned how to find points of agreement with the people he was talking to before getting at the points he was trying to persuade them to accept.
So it was throughout this campaign, and so it was tonight. Obama began his victory speech by praising Hillary Clinton at greater length than she had praised him and with words that Bill Clinton himself might have used: "I can tell you that what gets Hillary Clinton up in the morning--even in the face of tough odds--is ... an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, no matter how difficult the fight may be."
Minutes later, Obama spoke just as agreeably of his next adversary, John McCain. "John McCain, a man who has served this country heroically," Obama said. "I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine."
When Obama continued by saying "my differences with him are not personal; they are with the policies he has proposed in this campaign," the television audience must have expected the attacks to begin. But, once again, Obama acknowledged what McCain claims and many swing voters likely believe: "John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past." Only then, after he'd gotten his audience nodding in agreement, and he himself appeared the soul of sweet reason, did Obama criticize McCain for supporting Bush in recent years and espousing orthodox Republican positions in this campaign. In so doing, Obama presented McCain with two opponents in this election: himself, of course, but also the younger, less compromised John McCain--the maverick of 2000.
As for McCain, his speech earlier in the evening offered no grace notes about Obama, simply a full-throated attack on him as not representing "real change." That will be a difficult sell for McCain even if he makes it artfully--and this speech was anything but artful. It relied on assertion, not persuasion. And for all the red meat that he offered, McCain hardly roused himself, much less his audience. Obama, in contrast, spoke with subtlety, but was received like a rock star.