Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom X: Obama's Blackjack Moment

By Robert A. George

The best advice a speechwriter might want to give Barack Obama before his historic address tonight is to tone it down, keep it down to earth, avoid the high-flying rhetoric and the aim-for-seats grandiloquence.

But then one considers the moment. In any event, the stakes would be high: this is, after all, a presidential nominating acceptance speech. On top of that, Barack Obama is the first African-American (literally!) to be a major party's nominee. Add to that, this is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's, "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Add to that, he is competing against his own phenomenal keynote address delivered four years ago -- the address that catapulted an obscure state senator onto the national (international?) stage. Add to that, he is following by a day, one of the best speeches of the premiere politician of the last generation. Add to that, he is following by two days the best speech his bitter rival in his own party has ever given. Add to that, over the last month, his opponent in the other party has managed to portray him as a vacuous "celebrity" who can't really lead the country because he is out of touch with "real people."

And what does Barack Obama do? Not only does he schedule the last day of his convention outside of the convention hall, he puts it in a football stadium that holds 75,000 people. This is the type of venue that a pope or a rock band usually rents. And just when one thinks that is impossible to, as the saying goes, take it to another level, reports begin to spill out that Obama is creating a "temple-like" stage with iconic Ionic (ironic?) pillars.

I'm not a poker player. Indeed, I'm suspicious of all legal (and illegal) gambling. But, there is one card game of which I am somewhat familiar. No pun intended, but it seems like Barack Obama may well be a fan of blackjack: rather than try to shy away from the "celebrity" tag -- as demonstrated by his selection of verbose, yet ultimately blue-collar background, Joe Biden as his vice president -- Obama is doubling-down on his bet. He wants to think big – and wants a stage big enough for the dreams he dares to share.

He is embracing the fact that, when given the chance to make his case to an audience, Barack Obama succeeds by selling himself and his vision. That was enough to sell several thousand copies of his "Dreams From My Father" well before he was nationally known. That was enough, four years ago, to capture a national convention in the way an unknown politician never previously had (remember, Ronald Reagan had been a fairly well-known actor and TV presence well before his 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater).

That has been enough to inspire millions on the campaign trail over 18 months.

That was, finally, enough to vanquish the most powerful political machine the Democratic Party has created in the last two decades.

But, will it be enough to extricate Obama out of the "celebrity" quicksand in which John McCain and the Republicans have managed to immerse him in the last several weeks?

No one will know until the moment it happens.

But, as a person who doesn't agree with Barack Obama ideologically, I must say that he is either the most arrogant politician to come along in quite some time -- or is the canniest and bravest. After all, given all that has been listed above, it is quite clear that, absent everything else, Barack Obama had a colossal task ahead of him. Yet, at each step, he has chosen to add more weight to the task. If he fails, he will fail spectacularly: There is no middle-ground here. Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden have set this up as well as any set of Democrats could. But the rest is in his hands, brain and mouth.

The difference between a good speech and a great speech is often found in how well the message matches the messenger. Obama’s 2004 convention speech was as perfect a marriage as one will find. Obama 2008 is a different man in a different place. America is a different country in different circumstances. Can he manage to: 1) reintroduce himself; 2) speak to the nation's economic anxiety; 3) convince an audience near and far that he will keep the nation secure; and 4) assure America that he is ready to be president (to borrow a phrase from the man who took the stage Wednesday night) -- even as he looks somewhat different from all previous American presidents.

That last part is the most difficult. It can't be said flippantly, as in the, "I don't look like the guys on the currency." Rather, it is said as simple fact. It is not to put race out there as either shield or sword. It is to just recognize fact; it is to show that Barack Obama is comfortable in his own skin.

Because, ultimately, that is what Americans want to see in their president -- a man who knows who he is and what he wants to do. That, in essence, is why American selected George W. Bush over Al Gore: It's not the "beer" test; it is the "self-assurance" test.

Is Barack Obama a self-assured visionary who knows where he wants to lead America -- and is he ready to explain it?

Let's find out.

Robert A. George, a former writer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is an editorial writer for the New York Post


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