[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.