Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Political Speech

When Lincoln gave his Cooper-Union speech he was an unlikely prospect to run, let alone run successfully, for president. Only a few hundred people heard him. But that speech transformed him from an obscure congressman from Illinois to a national figure. Without TV or radio or the internet--it was the broadsides, the printed copies of that speech reproduced and spread from person to person that carried his message... that spread the word.

I thought the days of great, and effective political speeches were over. Martin Luther King, perhaps the last master of the spoken word in this form. There was Reagan with his canned bromides read from the teleprompter. A smooth narcoleptic propaganda, all in the voice and delivery, soothing to minds reluctant to have their received notions challenged, a kind of verbal Muzak, that when you looked at the words and tried to make sense of them, meaning evaporated into polarized vapors. There was the occasional crowd pleaser--a Ted Kennedy or Al Sharpton at a Democratic convention, but they changed nothing because they challenged nothing, least of all--critical thought.

Now we have this strange unexpected phenomenon--a presidential candidate who can move beyond the stump speech, who responds to a political crisis, not with the techniques of the spinmeisters--but with a speech. A real political speech. A speech that examines and analyzes--that resists and rejects the simplifications that have been the stock and trade of political discourse for half a century.

I don't suppose there were many more in attendance at the Constitution Center here in Philadelphia yesterday than were present to hear Abraham Lincoln at the Cooper-Union in New York City. Instead of broadsides and printed copies, we have the internet, people emailing links to the text and video of Obama's address. And we have the what passes as journalism today--endless sound bites devoted to digesting and regurgitating speech back into verbal Muzak. Here is a real test--a contest... the power of speech, of real speech, to overcome the technical homogenization of our Corporate Commissariats of Enlightenment.

Who can tell what will come of this?

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