The power of words

Tom Lyttleton 1 February 2008

Tom Lyttleton

Words are not actions. And as beautifully presented, and passionately felt as they are they are not actions’. These words, probably not passionately felt and certainly not beautifully presented, spoken by Hillary Clinton in a televised debate before the New Hampshire primary, and referring to the candidacy of her rival, Barack Obama, encapsulate why he, and not Hillary Clinton offers the brightest future for the United States of America. Hillary Clinton would probably be a perfectly competent president, an administrator-in-chief competently steering competent legislation through congress whilst competently repairing America’s global reputation, meeting other competent leaders. She would no doubt accomplish plenty of competent ‘actions’. Yet every so often, usually about once a generation, a leader emerges who shapes the politics and ideas of the next generation. Ronald Reagan was such a leader, so was JFK with civil rights and FDR with the New Deal. Hillary’s not going to be one, but Obama just might.

All these leaders had two things in common. First, they had a philosophy; something greater than the individual sum of their policies. This philosophy was always strong and distinctive, it also had to be right for the time; Reagan’s freemarket individualism, for example, came after a period of deep economic gloom. Second, they all had the ability to win the argument. The argument that their idea was the right one for the nation, not just among their fellow politicians but with the voting public as well. These leaders were all charismatic, some were orators. All of them knew that words, as well as actions were essential for their cause.

Obama, unlike Clinton, has both these qualities and so the potential to be a historic President. His overarching philosophy looks, at first glance to be disappointing. It seems vague, unoriginal and full of platitudes. He talks of the importance of inclusive politics, of the need to bring people together outside of traditional party politics (a line used with varying degrees of believability by everyone from Gordon Brown to George W. Bush) and of the need to heal a divided nation. So far so Motherhood and Apple Pie.

But, putting aside our heard-it-all-before cynicism, underlying all of this is a strong and coherent challenge to the politics of individualism that has dominated since Reagan. Yes, says Obama, the American Dream is important, but so is Society. In the speech he gave to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that first brought Obama to the fore, he reminded the nation that ‘we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child…I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one’.

Someone once said America is an idea; Obama reclaims this idea from the grasp of conservatives and refashions it into something progressive: Hope. Not blind optimism, but an audacious hope that America can be changed for the better. And just as Civil Rights was right for the ‘60s and unrestrained individualism for the ‘80s, so this message is right for America now. America has a greater gap between rich and poor than it did fifteen years ago; more people are killed in gun crimes; more men (mostly black) are in jail. It is Obama, not Clinton, who has recognised, what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’.

Of the candiates, both Democrat and Republican, only Obama is advocating this vision. Only Obama could advocate such a vision. His vision would be inauthentic without his story; graduating near top of his class at the best law school in America before eschewing corporate law and the seven figure salaries of his peers to work as a community project coordinator in New York and Chicago. As the successful son of an immigrant father, he’s the American Dream personified; and who better to unite a nation scarred by racial conflict than someone who has first-hand experience of it?

So Obama’s got the vision, and it’s authentic. He’s also got the wherewithal to persuade the American people that it’s the right vision.

The self-styled ‘skinny kid with a funny name’ has got charisma by the bucket load and is easily the best orator of any potential president since JFK. Youtube his speech to the Democratic National Convention if you don;t believe me.

Much has been made of the fact that Obama comes from the first generation of black politicians not to have matured in the crucible of the Civil Rights struggle. He’s not an Old School Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, thank God. But he shares with them a rhetorical tradition forged in the Black Churches: soaring rhetoric, an ability to invoke ideals without loftiness; morality without mawkishness.

Above all he has the ability to impart an almost damascene zeal. He can persuade people that voting for him is not just voting for any old candidate in any old election, but that it is the Right and Necessary thing to do at a crucial point in the history of a nation. Only Barack Obama can change America with the power of words.

Tom is a 2nd year History student at Fitzwilliam.

ords are not actions. And as beautifully presented, and passionately felt as they are they are not actions’. These words, probably not passionately felt and certainly not beautifully presented, spoken by Hillary Clinton in a televised debate before the New Hampshire primary, and referring to the candidacy of her rival, Barack Obama, encapsulate why he, and not Hillary Clinton offers the brightest future for the United States of America. Hillary Clinton would probably be a perfectly competent president, an administrator-in-chief competently steering competent legislation through congress whilst competently repairing America’s global reputation, meeting other competent leaders. She would no doubt accomplish plenty of competent ‘actions’. Yet every so often, usually about once a generation, a leader emerges who shapes the politics and ideas of the next generation. Ronald Reagan was such a leader, so was JFK with civil rights and FDR with the New Deal. Hillary’s not going to be one, but Obama just might.

All these leaders had two things in common. First, they had a philosophy; something greater than the individual sum of their policies. This philosophy was always strong and distinctive, it also had to be right for the time; Reagan’s freemarket individualism, for example, came after a period of deep economic gloom. Second, they all had the ability to win the argument. The argument that their idea was the right one for the nation, not just among their fellow politicians but with the voting public as well. These leaders were all charismatic, some were orators. All of them knew that words, as well as actions were essential for their cause.

Obama, unlike Clinton, has both these qualities and so the potential to be a historic President. His overarching philosophy looks, at first glance to be disappointing. It seems vague, unoriginal and full of platitudes. He talks of the importance of inclusive politics, of the need to bring people together outside of traditional party politics (a line used with varying degrees of believability by everyone from Gordon Brown to George W. Bush) and of the need to heal a divided nation. So far so Motherhood and Apple Pie.

But, putting aside our heard-it-all-before cynicism, underlying all of this is a strong and coherent challenge to the politics of individualism that has dominated since Reagan. Yes, says Obama, the American Dream is important, but so is Society. In the speech he gave to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that first brought Obama to the fore, he reminded the nation that ‘we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child…I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one’.

Someone once said America is an idea; Obama reclaims this idea from the grasp of conservatives and refashions it into something progressive: Hope. Not blind optimism, but an audacious hope that America can be changed for the better. And just as Civil Rights was right for the ‘60s and unrestrained individualism for the ‘80s, so this message is right for America now. America has a greater gap between rich and poor than it did fifteen years ago; more people are killed in gun crimes; more men (mostly black) are in jail. It is Obama, not Clinton, who has recognised, what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’.

Of the candiates, both Democrat and Republican, only Obama is advocating this vision. Only Obama could advocate such a vision. His vision would be inauthentic without his story; graduating near top of his class at the best law school in America before eschewing corporate law and the seven figure salaries of his peers to work as a community project coordinator in New York and Chicago. As the successful son of an immigrant father, he’s the American Dream personified; and who better to unite a nation scarred by racial conflict than someone who has first-hand experience of it?

So Obama’s got the vision, and it’s authentic. He’s also got the wherewithal to persuade the American people that it’s the right vision.

The self-styled ‘skinny kid with a funny name’ has got charisma by the bucket load and is easily the best orator of any potential president since JFK. Youtube his speech to the Democratic National Convention if you don;t believe me.

Much has been made of the fact that Obama comes from the first generation of black politicians not to have matured in the crucible of the Civil Rights struggle. He’s not an Old School Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, thank God. But he shares with them a rhetorical tradition forged in the Black Churches: soaring rhetoric, an ability to invoke ideals without loftiness; morality without mawkishness.

Above all he has the ability to impart an almost damascene zeal. He can persuade people that voting for him is not just voting for any old candidate in any old election, but that it is the Right and Necessary thing to do at a crucial point in the history of a nation. Only Barack Obama can change America with the power of words.

Tom is a 2nd year History student at Fitzwilliam.