Michael Gerson

But Obamamania is pretty mild stuff compared with our rhetorical history. When William Jennings Bryan finished his "Cross of Gold" Speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, extending his hands outward in cruciform melodrama, witnesses described a 40-minute riot, with "hills and valleys of shrieking men and women" and old men "crying bitterly, great tears rolling from their eyes into their bearded cheeks." After Douglas MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress in 1951, Rep. Dewey Short shouted: "We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God!"

Ah, those were the days of real rhetorical witchcraft.

It is not uncommon for American politicians to rise on the swell of their own words. A young Hubert Humphrey gained prominence at the 1948 Democratic convention with an uncompromising speech on civil rights, confronting those who thought America was "rushing" the issue: "I say to them we are 172 years late!" Ronald Reagan earned a national reputation making his televised case for Barry Goldwater in 1964, condemning Cold War appeasement with the argument that "the martyrs of history were not fools."

Obama is the latest in this distinguished series. Should he become the Democratic nominee, his own convention is likely to see hills and valleys of shrieking men and women. And why not? His speech will be ambitious, well delivered and historic -- the Democratic Party did not even admit African American delegates until 1936.

Obama's rhetorical skill will present a problem for McCain. The Arizona senator's close adviser Mark Salter is among the best writers in American politics. But McCain's delivery is often rigid and old-fashioned -- sprinkled with "my friends" in the manner of Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. And his use of the teleprompter is more awkward and obvious than Obama's.

McCain can and should make an ideological case against his opponent. Why does Obama want to fight terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not in Iraq? How would it advance the war on terrorism to grant al-Qaeda's fondest wish -- an untimely American retreat from the Middle East? Would Obama really devote his first year in office to a series of surrender summits with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea?

These are serious criticisms; the argument against rhetoric is not. Obama's political weakness is that he is too liberal, not that he is too eloquent.


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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