Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama and the Crowd

Like just about everyone else, I thought Obama earned his keep as our Head of State last night, particularly with his words about how we as a nation should aspire to live up to the innocent expectations of the nine-year-old victim of the Giffords shooting. I can’t say I’m surprised; it’s not as if we haven’t heard Obama being this eloquent before.

Yet I wouldn’t have been surprised if his words had missed their mark either. Even accomplished orators have their weaknesses, and Obama’s is his tendency toward rhetorical narcissism. When he tries to tell his audience something that he thinks it needs to know he reflexively inserts himself into the picture he’s describing by lapsing into the first-person singular.  Here’s a trivial example: Obama’s way of telling the International Olympic Committee that Chicago is a city that’s worthy of its appreciation (and thus a worthy host of the Olympic Games) was to emphasize how much he and Michelle appreciate it. At his worst, mistaking his own intellectual dexterity and fluency for practical wisdom, Obama casts himself in the role of lecturer-in-chief. Regrettable events, like the arrest of Henry Louis Gates by the Cambridge police, turn into cringe-inducing “teaching moments.”

When he stepped onto the podium last night, Obama looked like he was determined not to let his narcissism get the better of him. He was there solemnly to commemorate the victims without drawing undue attention to himself. He’d chosen his words to that end masterfully. Yet Obama was plainly taken aback by the crowd’s eruption into applause at the most inappropriate moments. He was there to deliver a eulogy. The crowd was there to participate in a democratic pageant. Applause was its way not only of honoring the victims of the Giffords shooting, but of congratulating itself for its own wholesome sentiments.

John Podhoretz was understandably appalled by the vulgarity of it all:
“The sentences and paragraphs of President Obama's speech last night were beautiful and moving and powerful. But for the most part they didn't quite transcend the wildly inappropriate setting in which he delivered them. . . .

“Even Obama's lovely peroration about little Christina Green – ‘I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it’ -- was greeted by the listeners as though they were delegates at a political convention, rather than attendees at a memorial service.

“They might have been mindful that they too had a role, a role as front-line mourners just as it was President Obama's role to play mourner-in-chief. Instead, they were a "Daily Show" audience writ large.

“There's been a great deal of talk in the wake of the massacre about the need for a national conversation about civility. Maybe what we need is a national conversation about elementary manners.”
Applauding raucously at a memorial service may be vulgar, but vulgarity is a necessary feature of democracy. I think the most impressive thing about Obama’s performance last night was how he reacted to the discovery that his words wouldn’t be received with the respectful silence he’d anticipated. He could have reacted to inappropriate applause with a lecturer’s stern detachment. Instead he made himself part of the audience. Soon we were hearing the amplified sound of him clapping his own hands, directing the audience’s applause away from itself and toward the people who’d earned it by incapacitating the shooter and tending to his victims. Obama had never looked so much like a democratic leader.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I thought the crowd took it's cues from the university president who presided over the afffair as if it were a friday afternoon high school assemply, the Indian healer who delivered the politically correct benediction and the governor who gave a political speech. The Arizonians got the pep rally they expected. Holder, Napolitano and Obama were out of step with the live audience because they were starring in a made-for-tv production directed at a national audience.