Column: Journalistic judgment and Obama’s speech

With links to three previous posts. Published on September 11, 2012.

It is already conventional wisdom to say that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, fell flat—especially when compared to his wife Michelle’s stirring speech on the first day of the convention, or to the master class ex-President Bill Clinton gave on the second day, or to his own soaring words when he accepted the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in Denver, Colorado, in 2008. Okay, maybe, but flat according to whom?

I have been worrying this question since I read Molly Ball’s assessment of Obama’s anticlimactic, “perplexingly lifeless” address in the Atlantic Monthly. I thought his acceptance speech was solid, substantial, not so much sober as sobering. But Ball, whom I read regularly, thought otherwise (and so did many others).

She wrote: “The president, that legendary orator, vaunted crowd-mover, well-known sweeper-away of audiences in general and political conventions in particular, gave a warmed-over rehash of his stump speech, right down to the exit music…” Never mind the semi-filled straw man that Ball uses to set up her point (in fact, Obama, after his election, acquired the reputation of being an on-again, off-again orator; I heard him in Copenhagen at the climate change conference in 2009, for instance, and he was decidedly off). Our attention is instead drawn to Ball’s unspoken assumption that a rehash of Obama’s campaign speech was necessarily a bad thing.

That assumption, I would like to argue, is essentially a journalistic one; that is to say, it is one made by a journalist as a journalist. There is no real news here, so the speech must be “so befuddlingly flat.” But is that the right standard by which to measure Obama’s—or any politician’s—speech?

Ball was certainly alert to the dilemma: “Was the speech pitched over the press’s head, to the humble average voter who’s never heard Obama’s stump speech before?” There it is again, the reference to the stump speech, which of course the “humble average voter” has not yet heard.

The answer to Ball’s own question is or must be a definite yes; I am not sure whether in the rush to write her piece (it was posted at just past midnight of Sept. 7), she actually came to grips with its implications.

Consider Bill Clinton. His prime time speech received generally positive, even ecstatic reviews. Some analysts dutifully pointed out that he used to spend his State of the Union addresses in exactly the same way, as an excuse to explain policy in great detail. But here’s the thing: Many journalists panned his State of the Union addresses then, for being too long, too pedantic, even too detailed. But when the polls came in, they always showed they were well-received by the ordinary citizen, the humble average voter.

* * *

To write the preceding paragraphs, I reread dozens of stories and analyses which reported or reviewed the standout speeches of Michelle Obama and Clinton, and the address by Obama. I have written up my notes in a series of posts on my Newsstand blog—and added over 50 links!

A couple of standouts: James Fallows proposed several reasons why Obama’s speech was actually “better than it sounds.” And Tom Junod caught the true Lincolnesque note in Obama’s one confessional passage.

* * *

I owe a couple of readers many thanks for setting me straight. “If I remember correctly, the exact phrase uttered by Renato Corona was: ‘Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines’,” DaniloD2D wrote in response to my Aug. 7 column on the words Renato Corona used to excuse himself from the witness stand at his own impeachment trial. I checked the footage available on YouTube and, sure enough, that’s exactly what Corona said.

Lawyer Mandares “Mandy” Dornagon sent me an e-mail on the same topic, agreeing with my argument that Philippine practice does not allow Corona’s expansive reading of his title (with or without the use of “Republic”), but also pointing out that a different tradition obtains in the United States. “But in the United States there has been, since 1866, an office and an official with the title of Chief Justice of the United States, when the U.S. Congress changed the title from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

He added: “Thus, 28 U.S.C. § 1, reads, ‘The Supreme Court of the United States shall consist of a Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices, any six of whom shall constitute a quorum.’”

I had actually noticed this difference because of something the incomparable Linda Greenhouse once wrote, but I am grateful to Mandy for his e-mail and for the exact reference.

Unfortunately, another reader, Loreto, thought that because he could not agree with me on the use of the title “chief justice of the Philippines,” I was not only necessarily mistaken, but actually arguing from ignorance. But his low regard for the Philippine Constitution (he does not say which one “has been plagiarized” from the US Constitution; he casts a blanket aspersion, perhaps thinking there is no real difference between the charters of 1987, 1973 and 1935) seems to blind him to the reality that, in the United States, there are other Supreme Courts—each state has its own court of last resort (with a few known by other names). So it makes perfect sense for a federal republic like the United States to have a specific title like Chief Justice of the United States. But the Philippines?

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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