Obama, Originality, and Historical Quotes

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 08/02/07

Everybody does it.  Every time you hear a political speech, they’re quoting from someone else’s political speech back in history.  Even America’s best speechwriters do it: in his dream speech for the Dem presidential nominee, Ted Sorensen quotes Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy (duh), and Archimedes.  In his “War on Terror” speech three months ago, John Edwards quoted Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and Bobby Kennedy.  (To Hillary Clinton’s credit, she doesn’t do this, ever.)

So it may surprise you to learn that America’s most memorable speeches contain few, if any, quotes from earlier lectures.  George Washington’s Farewell Address?  No quotes.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?  None, unless you count the oblique mention of Jefferson’s line that “all men are created equal.”  Woodrow Wilson’s war message?  Nada.  FDR’s Pearl Harbor address?  Zilch.  John Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech?  Ted Sorensen knew better then than he knows now — no quotes to speak of.  Howard Dean’s winter meeting speech?  With the notable exception of Dean’s uncredited cribbing of Paul Wellstone’s line “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” no quotes at all.

These examples are instructive.  A good leader is, of course, historically informed.  But people don’t want to hear a President quoting previous leaders; doing so makes him or her sound derivative and weak.  People want a President with bold new ideas, not just tired repackaged ones; an absence of historical quotes goes a long way toward creating that sense of originality and creativity.

Just two days ago, we witnessed Barack Obama’s transformation from derivativeness to originality on foreign policy.  Obama’s first major foreign affairs speech, delivered in April, contained no quotes, but it nevertheless managed to appear weak and uncertain, all because of this unfortunate sentence:

As leaders from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to Bill Perry to Sam Nunn have all warned, the actions we are taking today on this issue are simply not adequate to the danger.

Obama, a candidate with slight foreign policy experience, was attempting to bolster his ideas by presenting a bipartisan list of experts who agree with them.  But mentioning these leaders backfired on Obama.  Instead of shoring up his policies, reading off the list made Obama look like an inexperienced boy seeking the approval of his elders.  What’s more, some of these leaders were Republicans; a Democratic presidential candidate who seeks the approval of members of the other party looks downright knock-kneed.

Two days ago, Obama erased his past mistakes with a landmark address.  While the speech did contain a John Kennedy quote (the exception that proves the rule, I guess), it was also filled with magnificent original rhetoric like this:

Bin Ladin and his allies know they cannot defeat us on the field of battle or in a genuine battle of ideas. But they can provoke the reaction we’ve seen in Iraq: a misguided invasion of a Muslim country that sparks new insurgencies, ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name, and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world.

By refusing to end the war in Iraq, President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what the Congress voted to give them in 2002: a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. …

The America I know is the last, best hope for that child looking up at a helicopter. It’s the country that put a man on the moon; that defeated fascism and helped rebuild Europe. It’s a country whose strength abroad is measured not just by armies, but rather by the power of our ideals, and by our purpose to forge an ever more perfect union at home.

Obama’s Wilson Center speech has been panned by some left bloggers for its pledge to bomb Al Qaeda leaders discovered in Pakistan (still a far cry from Biden’s willingness to attack Sudan right now).  But I want to highlight something else: the stunning change in rhetorical prowess between Obama’s two speeches.  Barack Obama is easily the most gifted public speaker to run for President since the Kennedys, and he is the first since Woodrow Wilson to be drafted into the race almost solely because of his rhetorical prowess.  Yet his campaign speeches until now have been strangely lacking in fire and brilliance, with that April sinkhole the most notable example.  The Wilson Center speech demostrates a return to the old confident, uplifting Obama who electrified Americans with his 2004 DNC address on “The Audacity of Hope.”

And guess what?  That speech didn’t contain a single quote, either.  The message is clear: Americans want a President who can speak for himself, who doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of giants (in Newton’s words).  They want their President to be the giant, on whose shoulders they themselves can stand.

A quotemeister does not, in general, a leader make; but if you have to quote a historical figure, keep it simple.  To date, no candidate has quoted what I think is the most important, yet the simplest, sentiment uttered by a President to date: Grover Cleveland’s statement that “a public office is a public trust.”  In this age of unprecedented political corruption and self-aggrandizement, that’s one sentiment I wouldn’t mind seeing quoted.

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