28 August 2008

Obama's Notification Day

At first something seemed unprecedented, and to some, disturbing, about Senator Obama's decision to give his acceptance speech at a Denver football stadium outside the convention hall. It was a departure from established form, and his choice hinted, as did his appearance in Berlin, that Obama enjoyed performing before the largest crowds possible. There was something demagogic about it, I thought, until I learned that tonight's speech will really only mark the final merger of traditional conventions with another tradition that had disappeared for many years.

Like Victorian gentlemen maintaining their double standard of sexual morality, American politicians one hundred years ago still pretended to despise politics. It was still considered bad form for any aspiring office holder to promote himself for the job. Accordingly, candidates didn't campaign much, letting surrogates speak for them as much as possible. It was also absolutely taboo for front-runners to appear at their party conventions. As a result, there were no acceptance speeches like those we expect today -- at least not at the convention.

Our ancestors were not unskilled in creating what we would call "media events." The way they did it in those days was to have conventions appoint notification committees whose job was to travel to the candidate's home and inform him that he had been nominated. Of course, the candidate knew this from the news wires within moments after the final ballot, but awaiting the notification committee, which might take a month before making its visit, gave the candidate time to polish his acceptance speech, and his town time to prepare a big blowout for the notification ceremony, from artillery salutes for the committee and parades through town to fireworks after dark when the speeches were done.

Before the advent of primary elections, conventions actually decided who the candidate was. It's now been more than fifty years since the last time a major party's nomination convention needed more than one ballot to choose a candidate. Primaries have only become more important since that time. They effectively decide who the candidate is. Inevitably, the convention itself has taken over the function of the old notification ceremony, the only difference being that Obama must still come to Denver instead of the Democrats and the media coming to him in Chicago.

But historical perspective doesn't entirely dismiss questions about Obama's apparent preference for oratory in front of mobs, as opposed to the more intimate style of electoral communication encouraged by television. Is this related to his apparently increasing reluctance to participate in what passes for "debates" in our sound-bite era of "gotcha" reporting? Is it related to the "aloofness" that narcissistic voters perceive in him, that quality or absence of it which led one Clinton supporter to say that Obama hadn't "spoken to me" yet?

I asked Mr. Peepers, a faithful Democrat, about this. I mentioned what the Clintonite had said on C-SPAN, and he exclaimed, "That's right!" He launched into a pantomime of Obama, keeping his head tilted upward, swiveling it back and forth and orating nonsense in a sing-songy voice. This was meant to illustrate that Obama did not make eye contact with people and didn't talk in a natural voice. He missed the more telegenic, intimate manner of speechifying of which he no doubt considered Bill Clinton the master. Most likely many other people interpret Obama's old-school oratory as "talking down" to them. If so, that would explain why the "elitist" charge seems to stick to him but never to the oratorically handicapped George W. Bush or the monotonous Senator McCain.

If there are more Democrats like Mr. Peepers who are already off-put by Obama's manner, tonight's performance isn't likely to win them over, no matter what the candidate ends up saying. What's sad about this is that the content of Obama's remarks doesn't seem to factor into these people's calculations of his likability or electability. The American electorate may have reached such a point of decadence that a candidate, not necessarily Obama, could talk perfect sense to them and actually offer correct answers to pressing problems, but still be rejected simply for the way he talks. Arguably it has already happened to the "haughty" Kerry and the "pompous" Gore, but why do we persist on blaming these defeats on the candidates' personality traits when the real problem seems to be with the people themselves? Can't we say that in a democracy? Then what are we supposed to say?...

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