November 2nd, 2012

Wordsmiths for Obama: redux

[NOTE: Some of the comments on today’s earlier post about Noonan, Obama, and narcissism made me remember the following piece. I wrote it back in June of 2008 to explain the phenomenon of why so many wordsmiths were so taken with Obama, and how it is that being a good writer is hardly the same as being a good thinker—or a good policy-maker, for that matter, although some writers seem to think that because they’re so good with words they would be awfully good at setting policy, too. The post still seems to be making some very relevant points, so I thought I’d republish it.

And for the sake of argument let’s assume that Obama wrote his own books without ghostwriters, because the point is that most people thnk he did, and that affects them.]

In trying to understand what about Obama appeals so powerfully to his supporters, I’ve decided that some—perhaps even much—of it is style.

He gives a good speech. He has a deep voice. He’s tall. He’s slender. He knows what a dap is. And he can turn a literary phrase.

The latter is the reason some literary folk like him, anyway, by their own report—that’s according to at least two examples of the genre, fiction writer Michael Chabon, and Sam Anderson, who appears to be a book reviewer at New York Magazine, and is the author of the article from which the following excerpts are taken:

Michael Chabon, arguably America’s best line-by-line literary stylist, says he became a proselytizing Obama supporter after reading a particularly impressive turn of phrase in the senator’s second book—a conversion experience that seems, on first glance, inexcusably silly, but on fifth glance might be slightly profound.

No, even on fifth glance, it’s not even slightly profound. It’s profoundly slight.

How much can you tell about a candidate’s fitness to lead a country based on a single clause?


The substance/style debate has been around for centuries—and, like all the other venerable binaries, is probably best considered as a symbiosis. Too often, style is dismissed as merely a sauce on the nutritious bread of substance, when in fact it’s inevitably a form of substance itself. This goes double for the presidency, where brilliant policy requires brilliant public discourse.

Policy can certainly be assisted in being sold to the public by brilliant public discourse, and that can be important—witness the failure of George Bush to do so. The masters were Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and to a lesser degree FDR and Reagan, and Tony Blair in our time. But if the substance isn’t there, the style not only does not substitute for it, but can be dangerously misleading because it can seductively mask the lack of substance with its captivating siren song.

If you can think your way through a sentence, through the algorithms involved in condensing information verbally and pitching it to an audience, through the complexities of animating historical details into narrative, then you can think your way through a policy paper, or a diplomatic discussion, or a 3 A.M. phone call.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Wordsmiths fancy they could govern quite well, if only they cared to. Neither the skills nor the knowledge base of oration or of writing—especially fiction, although it’s also true of writing in general—are readily transferable to forming and implementing policy, although they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Did Anderson ever watch a tape of Truman giving a speech? He makes McCain look like Churchill. Truman was not good at oration—but he is now thought of as having been a good president although his popularity, like Bush’s, was very low when he left office. Perhaps the latter fact is an indication that good speechmaking is helpful for selling one’s policies and bad speechmaking handicaps a president who is involved in a complex and difficult war, such as the Korean or the Iraq wars.

Style tells us, in a second, what substance couldn’t tell us in a year.

It tells us a lot, indeed—but only about style. It tells us nothing about substance.

Hillary Clinton—not especially known for her oratorical skills—had a much better way of putting it. You might even call her words eloquent—because they happen to have both style and substance:

You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.

24 Responses to “Wordsmiths for Obama: redux”

  1. kolnai Says:

    I can discern a lot about a wordsmith’s worthiness of the franchise from one clause.

    Chabon’s status: FAIL.

    I would accuse him of being a deceptive sophist spinning a web of specious arguments in order to bamboozle people, but I really don’t think he’s smart enough to do that. He’s precisely as dim-witted as he appears.

  2. gcotharn Says:

    Virginia Postrel’s book, “The Substance of Style”, opened my eyes to new ways of looking at things, and seems appropriate to link here

  3. david foster Says:

    Good post. I wrote a related piece: king of the word people

  4. david foster Says:

    Also, there is a certain resemblance between Obama and Woodrow Wilson….an interesting psychological analysis of the latter was written by Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt, who worked closely with Wilson at Versailles. See minds of the word people

  5. Paul in Boston Says:

    Otherwise known as eloquent idiots.

  6. kcom Says:

    “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

    But prose is such a drag, you know. It’s like having to prepare for a debate. Yuck.

  7. Otiose Says:

    Did Obama write his own books? My doubts increased when I read a letter Obama wrote in a Harvard school newspaper when he was in law school.

    I doubt that a high school senior with those grammar errors in his application/essay could get into Harvard.

  8. FenelonSpoke Says:

    I had a friend who was tall and slender with a gorgeous baritone voice. One of the few actors I ever met from NY who always voted Republican. His take on Obama: Obama reads his lines nicely and many people assume that folks with a deep voice have gravitas. My friend didn’t believe Obama’s act.

  9. JEM Says:

    The fact is that 90% of those voters who were impressed by the fact that Obama was a published author were the Honey Boo Boos – they never picked up the book, they never tried to read it. Everything they knew about the book they learned from Oprah.

    My own reading of the book – not the whole thing, just enough to know I could never stomach the idea of having him in office – left me thinking that here was a man of almost exactly my age, with advantages I’d never had, who had taken away from his life’s experiences almost exactly the opposite lessons I’d taken from my own.

  10. JEM Says:

    FenelonSpoke – so you could conclude from that that 53% of America elected Obama’s pack of Kools.

  11. t-bird Says:

    If you can think your way through a sentence…

    Wow. Really high standards.

  12. Mikey NTH Says:

    “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

    That should be carved in stone somewhere very prominent.

  13. james Says:

    “You campaign in poetry but govern in prose” was originally from NY Gov. Mario Cuomo some 20+ years ago. He was in fact quite eloquent.

  14. rickl Says:

    That Walter Duranty sure had a way with words.

  15. Ampontan Says:

    Debates over the first book aside, nobody expends much energy denying that the second book was a pastiche of Obama speeches written by his main speechwriter at the time.

    For a reviewer to be impressed by that doesn’t say much about the reviewer.

    Shame Sorenson didn’t get that Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage, too.

  16. Blacque Jacques Shellacque Says:

    He gives a good speech. He has a deep voice. He’s tall. He’s slender. He knows what a dap is. And he can turn a literary phrase.

    His problem is that he’s full of crap.

  17. Cobacoba98 Says:

    “If you can think your way through a sentence, through the algorithms involved in condensing information verbally and pitching it to an audience”

    Let me work my through this sentence…

    1) Claim that writing a sentence is like writing an algorithm, i.e. math. LOL.

    2) Condensing information verbally, has an assumption that you are getting information not dis-information.

    3) Pitching – so its sales, not an algorithm, and not simply information.

    I will stop here. But these are the kinds of beautiful sentences that can imply a lot of intelligence and experience without really it being the case.

  18. BS Inc. Says:

    It’s not as pithy, but I think the more accurate statement where Obama is concerned is “You campaign on BS, you govern by funneling as much of the public purse to your cronies as you can”.

    At least that’s how I see it.

  19. Llarry Says:

    Michael Chabon, arguably America’s best line-by-line literary stylist[.]

    Boy, is that a hoot or what?

    Can anybody on the planet quote a single line Chabon has written? He’s produced, what, about 400 pounds of books?

    One line. That’s all I ask.

  20. perturbed Says:

    Compare also the eloquent British PM Lloyd-George against his top generals in World War One, neither of whom were articulate men in speech (though they were a lot better on paper, and better commanders than much written history gives them credit for.) Historian John Terraine speaks of Lloyd-George’s disdain for men he calls “the intelligent inarticulate”, which made me think a lot of George W. Bush.

  21. KT Says:

    Before his presidential run, Obama gave an interview in which he talked about how drawn he was to “community organizing”. However, he believed that Saul Alinsky had been wrong in his “lead from behind” approach to community organizing. Obama’s experience had been that this approach was not effective. He believed that community organizing required a strong leader. I guess “leading from behind” is just for foreign policy and legislation.

    Think about that as you watch Valerie Jarrett say that Obama will be traveling the country more in his second term, connecting with Americans in order to hold Congress accountable. Obama and Jarrett both seem to believe that his shortcomings as a president stem mainly from not giving enough speeches. Early in his presidency, Jarrett also talked about Obama speakng “truth to power”. Seems sort of odd to me when referring to the man in the most powerful position on earth.

  22. KT Says:

    If you can think your way . . . . . through the complexities of animating historical details into narrative . . .

    I would be far more impressed with this ability if the historical details which Obama added to his speeches were not so frequently false.

  23. Politics and the Eloquence Fallacy | Andrew J. Patrick Says:

    […] a refutation on Friday (h/t: Ace) of the notion, oft fulsomely asserted in the 2008 campaign, that eloquence is a substitute for competence: Wordsmiths fancy they could govern quite well, if only they cared to. Neither the skills nor the […]

  24. Why wordsmith (pseudo)intellectuals tend to favor 0bama and big government « Spin, strangeness, and charm Says:

    […] attempts to answer this question. She argues that wordsmiths (that is, people who earn a living by pushing words around, suc as […]

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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