Suzanne Fields

How clever of Barack Obama to schedule his acceptance of his party's nomination in the Denver Broncos stadium, which seats 75,000 fans. We'll get the halftime entertainment without having to sit through the football game (or a wardrobe malfunction). What a perfect sign of our times -- a focus on noise, light and spectacle.

While John McCain struggles to learn how to read a Teleprompter, Barack Obama soars on his talent as a dazzling speaker. His acceptance speech will even fall on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech. Few candidates could stand the comparison, but Obama might.

The Republican National Convention Committee, displaying more than a little envy, accuses the Democrats of relying on "stagecraft and theatrics" over substance. But there's some merit in its chagrin. Spectacle enhances the candidate's emotional appeal, though relying on style over substance carries risks.

When John Kenneth Galbraith coined the phrase "conventional wisdom" five decades ago, he wasn't talking about what's going on at a convention, but about what's generally perceived to be fashionably acceptable. In our medium-is-the-message age, spectacle is acceptable, but it can make us feel like we're being patronized. In "The Anti-Intellectual Presidency," Elvin T. Lim traces the decline of presidential rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush and finds an increasing reliance on applause lines rather than the imparting of information or making effective argument.

From FDR through Bill Clinton, the word "applause" occurs in the speeches of presidents 1,939 times. Ninety-seven percent of the references occur in the speeches of Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton. Even George W., no great orator, played to the pause for applause. An average of 71 applause breaks punctuated each of his State of the Union addresses, 29 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of his speech. Such partisan interruptions trump persuasion.

Bill Clinton, a natural at the podium, got rousing ovations as partisan punch lines rolled across his tongue like honey on an apple. When a Teleprompter failed in the middle of one of his State of the Union addresses, he extemporized effortlessly. Not for nothing was he called Slick Willie.

In the dumbing down of education, we've deprived generations of schoolchildren the study of rhetoric, a staple back when studies in Latin and Greek were required, too. As we struggle to leave no child behind in English and math, the study of rhetoric is a luxury we think we can't afford.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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