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2004-07-29

Political witchmastery 

Josh Marshall, the Democrat-leaning A-list blogger, on the ability of the best public speakers to be completely present in a speech, not showing any distance or hesitation of self-consciousness:
In most politicians -- in most public speakers really -- you can always sense a sort of double motion. You can sense their constant awareness of what they should be doing before they do it, and their inability to get the two to match up. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that you sense their consciousness of self, the visibility of their artifice, like an actor who looks like he's acting, even if the technical points are hit more or less on key.

Clinton was always different. Whether there was artifice or not, it was seldom visible. His rapport with crowds or individuals was (and is) intuitive. The mastery of voice, sound and expression was always complete. And you could see that Monday night.

As it happens, I don't think that quality in a public speaker is something that can be learned. And on a fundamental level, I don't think it's a matter of artifice, though clearly Clinton has a rhetorical bag of tricks he returns to again and again. It's an emotional quality, an element of personality -- part of that undefinable quality of personal charisma. And that was what was radiating from Obama last night.
Yet I was impressed by the speech only by reading it. Marshall links to this analysis of the strength of Obama's speech in the National Review Online, from an apparently Republican perspective. It illustrates how it is the originality of some ideas that makes the speech transcend 'garden-variety political rhetoric'. Coming back to my questions yesterday, some elements of the political pathos that are operating in Obama's speech would not work in Europe because they have become discredited, such as the religious references or maybe even references to a national vocation. Yet there remains a second quality of Obama's achievement, a freshness and vigor of thought, that is admirable and could certainly be implemented in Europe as well, political talent allowing.

The only European who comes to my mind in this context is Tony Blair on a good day, in his early years. With him, the charm seems to have worn off somewhat even though the talent is probably still there. Does charisma also have an expiry date?


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