In his first address to a joint session of Congress last night, President Barack Obama showed a craftsmanship with words that is possible only by political leaders who possess a unique appreciation for the promise of language and a rare gift for writing the ideas that have historically transformed civilizations. America finally has an architect for its recovery, restoration and renewal.
There are fewer constants in the long brow of history than the power of words. Politicians from the times of Pericles and Cicero down through the ages have known that the right mixture of words and ideas, of cadence and drama, can yield a magic elixir that captivates and moves people to accomplish astonishing feats. That skill was persuasively evident in President Barack Obama’s first address before a joint session of Congress last night.
One can see from this man, and from the books he has written, a craftsmanship with words that is possible only by political leaders who possess a unique appreciation for the promise of language and a rare gift for writing the ideas that have historically transformed civilizations.
It is a skill that is not uniformly held by politicians. Many cannot string a sequence of logical thoughts together without the help of someone who writes them for a living. But the best orators have always been the ones who have spoken with a distinctive voice –their own voice– to which they have been able to give force with the words they themselves have written. For leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Britain’s Winston Churchill and Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier and, more recently, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an interest in concepts and words, and the ability to personally craft them in a compelling fashion, gave their political careers, and their place in history, its defining signature.
In a previous and somewhat more youthful incarnation, I occasionally wrote speeches for a number of political figures, including a couple who have held the office of Prime Minister of Canada. One develops from that experience an unshakable interest in how well or poorly important ideas are formulated and presented. You wonder if you could have written a better line than the one delivered by some prominent political actor or spared a leader from an embarrassing collision of words and insurgent thoughts. You scratch your head in puzzlement about why so many speeches have no discernible theme, which, in the field of law, is like a lawsuit that has no discernible cause of action or, in the field of gastronomical endeavors, is like a hamburger that has no discernible beef, to paraphrase Walter Mondale.
I had that feeling a lot when George W. Bush was president. I have it when most top CEOs give their version of a speech. I never get that feeling when reading a speech by Lincoln or TR. And I did not have it when President Obama spoke before the assembled legislative branch of the American government last night.
While I still receive a number of requests each year from politicians, business leaders and the occasional prince around the world to pen some ideas for them (for fees I could not have dreamed of 20 years ago) I haven’t accepted a speech writing assignment in decades. I do give them occasionally myself, however, and I generally prefer university groups. I find that young people on campuses have a unique appreciation for a thoughtful talk that inspires and informs, even in an era when the drive for coolness seems a bit overwhelming and there is seldom a question where the answer is not technology, or, at the very least, a new iPhone app.
There is still a place for professional speechwriters. No president or prime minister or top CEO could possibly prepare his or her own talks every time they are called upon to speak. But I would argue that the best speakers are still the ones who understand language and its promise, who are inspired by ideas and their power, and who, in their own stead, are unique in the gifts they possess as wordsmiths.
In his autobiography, Mr. Obama reveals that he long considered becoming an architect. Buildings and their styling interested him. The fascination is still evident. Because at long last in the White House, there is a man who reads and writes and thinks a lot about the right words and what they can do. He might even ponder them as he drifts off to sleep, dreaming about this word or that, and which can best be laid one after another in a way that creates a gleaming tower of precision and balance that inspires and illuminates and makes the human condition better for its being there.
From what we witnessed last night, I think we should be seeing a lot of Mr. Obama’s signature buildings in the years ahead, as he plies his trade as the architect of America’s recovery, restoration and renewal.