Michael Gerson

When Hillary Clinton sensed her presidential hopes beginning to slip away, she turned to an attack on Barack Obama's rhetoric. "There's a big difference between us," she argued, "speeches versus solutions, talk versus action. . . . Words are cheap." And further: "Speeches don't put food on the table" -- as though her own hectoring and position papers were an all-you-can-eat buffet.

John McCain will be tempted to make a similar attack, having already accused Obama of offering "only rhetoric." And it, too, would be a mistake.

Many political advisers in both parties employ "rhetoric" as a synonym for "folderol." Winging it in speeches is generally viewed as more authentic, and authenticity plays well with dial groups -- groups that also helpfully inform us that Americans don't like downbeat words such as "war" or "sacrifice" or "poverty," preferring instead cheerful terms such as "marshmallows" and "pixie dust."

This is nonsense. From the Greek beginnings of political rhetoric, the wise have described a relationship between the discipline of writing and the discipline of thought. The construction of serious speeches forces candidates (or presidents) to grapple with their own beliefs, even when they don't write every word themselves. If those convictions cannot be marshaled in the orderly battalions of formal rhetoric, they are probably incoherent.

The triumph of shoddy, thoughtless spontaneity is the death of rhetorical ambition. A memorable, well-crafted speech includes historical references that cultivate national memory and unity -- "Four score and seven years ago." It makes use of rhythm and repetition to build enthusiasm and commitment -- "I have a dream." And a great speech finds some way to rephrase the American creed, describing an absolute human equality not always evident to the human eye.

Civil rights leaders possessed few weapons but eloquence -- and their words hardly came cheap. Every president eventually needs the tools of rhetoric, to stiffen national resolve in difficult times or to honor the dead unfairly taken.

It is not a failure for Obama to understand and exercise this element of leadership; it is an advantage.

Some Obama critics go even further, accusing him of inducing a "creepy," "cultish" "euphoria." A candidate delivers a good stump speech, adds a dose of personal magnetism and suddenly he is a sorcerer, practicing the dark arts of demagoguery.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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