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Obama's career, and criticism, driven by oratory

Opponents target borrowed themes in stump speeches

Barack Obama's speeches have inspired followers and given ammunition to critics. Barack Obama's speeches have inspired followers and given ammunition to critics. (JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Alec MacGillis
The Washington Post / February 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - The 2008 presidential campaign has witnessed the rise of a whole arsenal of new political weapons, including Internet fund-raising and sophisticated microtargeting of voters. For Senator Barack Obama, however, the most powerful weapon has been one of the oldest.

Not since the days of the whistle-stop tour and the radio addresses that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to hone his message while governor of New York has a presidential candidate been propelled so much by the force of words, according to historians and experts on rhetoric.

Obama's emergence as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination has become nearly as much a story of his speeches as of the candidate himself. He arrived on the national scene with his address to the 2004 Democratic convention, his campaign's key turning points have nearly all involved speeches, and his supporters are eager for his election-night remarks nearly as much as for the vote totals.

But his success as a speaker has also invited a new line of attack by his opponents.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, fighting to keep her candidacy alive, has sought to cast Obama as a kind of glib salesman, framing the choice before voters as "talk vs. action." Senator John McCain of Arizona, the likely Republican nominee, has picked up the attack, vowing to keep Americans from being "deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change."

Obama gave his rivals an opening to question his speechmaking recently when he borrowed a riff about the power of words that was used two years ago by a friend and informal adviser, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. But the episode also illustrated a basic fact about Obama's constantly evolving stump speech: It is replete with outside influences, from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ("the fierce urgency of now") to Edith Childs, the Greenwood County, S.C., councilwoman who inspired the "fired up, ready to go" chant that Obama used for months to end the speech.

To his critics, these influences are proof that Obama's rhetoric is less original and inspired than his supporters believe. "If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said in Thursday's debate in Texas. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in; it's change you can Xerox."

To his admirers, this magpie-like tendency to pluck lines and ideas from here and there and meld them into a coherent whole is inherent to good speechwriting and part of what makes Obama effective on the stump. It has allowed him to adapt quickly to rivals' attacks, which he often absorbs into his speeches, parroting them and turning them to his advantage.

It has also allowed him to keep his speeches fresh, a challenge in a campaign in which he has given two or three stump speeches a day, on average, in addition to a dozen or so major televised addresses along the way.

"He seems very deliberative," said Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric at Baylor University. "He seems like he's actually thinking about what he is saying rather than just reading from a script."Along with swapping in and out new riffs for each section, Obama has learned how to adapt the speech in tone and in some of its details for each audience. This was most conspicuous in South Carolina, where he engaged in a running repartee with his mostly black audiences and sprinkled his words with local vernacular, a communications specialist said.

"It comes from his sense of an audience," said Gerald Shuster, an expert in political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "He's doing a lot of impromptu when he gets to the stage; he looks out over the audience and has the ability to adjust it."

The clearest comparison, the specialists say, is to John F. Kennedy, who, like Obama, was able to mix high seriousness and humor. The shared cadences with Kennedy are not entirely a surprise - Obama's young speechwriters are steeped in the addresses of Kennedy and his brother Robert, and the campaign has been getting informal advice from Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen.

But not even Kennedy was perceived as relying on his speaking skills as much as Obama is. "The main difference was that the 1960 campaign was much more substantive than the current campaign," Medhurst said. "There was no criticism of his eloquence or speaking ability," Medhurst said of Kennedy.

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