Down on the Farm: Obama's oratory
Say what you will about President Obama, he has done his part to revive the dying art of oratory.
Obama's speech here in Tucson after the tragic shootings last week was lauded from all sides. The text was well-written and threaded all the necessary rhetorical needles.
Yet, for all its strength on paper, the speech had to be delivered flawlessly for it to work.
Packed arenas are how Obama won the presidency. He filled venues other politicians wouldn't dare book, and he seldom disappointed the throngs.
But the Tucson event, also held in an arena, was a memorial. It required a completely different mood than a campaign rally.
Obama knew he could not acknowledge the rambunctious Tucson crowd's lengthy cheers. So he didn't. At the same time, he didn't show irritation when his somber oratory was interrupted by the crowd's unexpected enthusiasm.
It became clear early on that Obama had on his hands two distinct audiences with two distinct moods.
One audience consisted of the millions in their living rooms who were prepped by the somber commentators.
The other audience was in the arena, locals who had spent their day in line getting to know others of a like mind, all who wanted to show that Tucson would not be defeated.
Although the text Obama's speech was scripted, the pace and tone of its delivery was a masterful improvisation which accommodated both audiences.
Given the hundreds of speeches Obama has given in rowdy arenas, it must have taken iron discipline for him to keep his attitude, posture and facial expressions appropriate for a memorial tribute.
Although the temptation is to think the speaker at a memorial should just relax and go with the flow, honestly showing one's emotions at the lectern doesn't always work in times of grief.
What if you suddenly think of a great joke told by the deceased? Don't you dare let that hint of a smile cross your face at the wrong time!
You have to plan and practice everything, including your demeanor.
Ronald Reagan knew he would never make it through his more difficult eulogies, such as the one he delivered after the Challenger disaster, if he actually thought about the words he was saying.
In his memoir, Reagan admitted that he practiced speeches for sad occasions so many times he no longer sensed any emotional connection to the words.
An actor, Reagan knew how to conjure up the proper facial expressions to fit the words whether he actually felt anything or not. And usually he did not.
Reagan separated his role from any grief he felt as a person in order to perform his ceremonial duties as president.
President Obama is such a cool character that I don't think he has to practice detachment ahead of time. That's just the way he is.
How he could deliver the dramatic line, "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," without choking up is beyond me. It wasn't in the script. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had just opened her eyes a while before at the hospital and Obama added the detail to his speech just before he went on stage.
Most presidents haven't bothered to learn how to give good speeches on sad occasions. Historically, it hasn't been a qualification for the job.
Some presidents were disqualified by temperament. Could Richard Nixon have even tried to show empathy for a grieving public? Give me a break.
Engineer Jimmy Carter was more comfortable with policy lectures. When he got into emotion once with the "malaise" speech, it flopped.
The Bushes were more comfortable somewhere other than behind a lectern.
Bill Clinton enjoyed the spotlight so much that he had difficulty shining it on somebody other than himself no matter how much he tried.
Reagan invented the Consoler-in-Chief role with the Challenger disaster, and Obama clearly is able and willing to play the part.
Let's hope it is a role he seldom needs to fill.