Obama's sucess tied to his eloquence

02/24/2008 1:55 PM

01/14/2009 1:57 PM

A few words in defense of words.

This, in light of the latest knock on Sen. Barack Obama, which is that, while he's good with words, words are all he's got. He is eloquent and inspiring, this analysis goes, but eloquence and inspiration do not a president make.

It's a line of criticism that has been argued by pundits (David Brooks in The New York Times used the word "vaporous"), by the presumptive GOP nominee for president ("eloquent but empty, " said Sen. John McCain) and by Obama's rival for the Democratic nod ("Speeches don't put food on the table, " said Sen. Hillary Clinton).

That last worthy must feel not unlike Wile E. Coyote did in trying to tag the Road Runner -- or like congressional Republicans did in trying to tag her husband. Nothing she throws sticks. Indeed, one senses a flailing desperation in Clinton's scramble to find the rock, broken bottle or brickbat that will knock Obama offstride.

She accused him of being afraid to debate her and never mind that there have been, like, 57 debates already.

She accused him of stealing lines from a speech by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. And never mind that Patrick, an Obama supporter, says he gave the lines to Obama and said, "Here, use this."

Knockout blows these are not.

And if those criticisms miss the mark, the argument that eloquence is somehow empty misses the point -- not simply of Obama's primary season success, but of the presidency itself. Don't get me wrong: To the degree Clinton or anyone else calls Obama out over a paucity of specifics in his proposals, the criticism is fair. But that's not the same as saying words don't matter. Or even that they matter less.

The chief executive's power does not derive solely from the authority vested in him by the Constitution. To the contrary, it derives also, and in some ways, more so, from his ability to rally the people, to inspire them in some great challenge or crusade.

We do not live -- yet -- in a dictatorship. Americans do not move because they are told to move; they move because they are inspired to. It is no accident that history's most successful presidents are the ones who were able to frame, with concision and grace, America's challenges and hopes, the ones who had greatest command over what Theodore Roosevelt famously called "the bully pulpit."

Think Ronald Reagan saying government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem. Think Franklin Roosevelt declaring that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Think Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg vowing a new birth of freedom.

Now, try to remember anything Millard Fillmore ever uttered. A hundred years from now, will anyone still be saying, "I'm the decider?"

Americans do not move because they are told to move; they move because they are inspired to.

What some of us don't understand is that Obama is not running a campaign; he is rallying a movement. After seven years of what may go down as the worst presidency ever, after the grime of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, after dreary years of internecine sniping where ideological purity has routinely trumped national interest, Americans want something else. Something higher.

Whether Obama can deliver that something else is a fair question. But the thing is, he recognizes and responds to the hunger for it. That's the reason Clinton can't lay a glove on him, the reason he's won 10 primaries in a row, the reason he's cracked her coalition and even inspired Republicans to switch parties.

Clinton and others seem to think all those people have been scammed, flim-flammed and razzle-dazzled. It's a condescending conclusion.

I suspect that if anybody bothered to ask them, they'd say that what they've been, at last, is heard.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr


Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at lpitts@MiamiHerald.com or visit his website at www.leonardpittsjr.com

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