If there is one thing that remains untarnished in the Obama legacy thus far, it is that the man has raised the bar for public speaking in American political culture. Until a couple of years ago, this was a country where the last time anyone had made a speech worthy of anthologizing was Mario Cuomo in his “City on a Hill” speech way back in 1984. But then Obama grabbed Blue America by its kishkes with his canny blend of fervor and flava, and suddenly we knew what it was again to thrill to, of all things, oratory.
Especially in view of last night’s Republican takeover of the House, Obama will no longer be able to coast on the theatrical elan of his speechmaking gift. With the dust cleared from the drama of Election 2008, we have a heightened awareness of the difference between pretty talk and getting things done. Yet it remains true that knowing how to rub a noun and a verb together is not precisely unconnected to intelligence and even basic gravity.
In the light of that, it was hard not to notice last night that by and large, the Tea Party’s rock stars suffer from the thickness of tongue that Moses made do with. To take a page from the Bidenian assessment of Obama back in the day, they are at least variably bright, and presumably clean, but articulate? Almost strangely not, for people so ardently dedicated to suasion and change.
It was interesting watching them try. Rand Paul opened his victory speech trying to channel a bit of Obamatude by mouthing earnestly “I Have a Message!” Get it? Substitute “dream” for message, and well, that sounds like, you know. That is, the “you know” who Paul claimed he would have walked with in the sixties if he had been there, despite questioning the Civil Rights Act.
But Senator Paul, you have to say it like you mean it. He mumbled some thank you-type cliches and then abruptly lurched into his “I Have a Message” announcement, complete with an abrupt new tone of voice. It reminded me of a guy who auditioned for a production of West Side Story I was connected with long ago, who walked out to stage center, stood still, threw his hands up over his head palms forward, and started singing “Zippity Doo Dah” in a joyless rasp, rather like Jimmy Durante at gunpoint.
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.