Barack Obama is the greatest orator ever to serve as President. At least that is what former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. said in September of 2011. Ford is not alone, Roger Simon of the Politico labeled Obama the “greatest orator of the modern era.” Ford and Simon are among the countless pundits who continue to herald Obama’s oratorical skills, though in a slightly less hyperbolic manner.
So, how does the great speech-giver do when compared to a high school English teacher from a Boston suburb?
The recent commencement address to the 2012 graduating class of Wellesley High School is a great one to compare. The address was written and delivered by the son of two-time Pulitzer winning historian David McCullough, but pedigreed or not, the younger David McCullough gave a most memorable address.
Compare the McCullough commencement address to a high school commencement address by Mr. Obama. Excluding his 2012 speech to the Joplin, Missouri High School as a special circumstance – the President was there to honor a town recovering from a devastating tornado – we can take up the 2011 address to the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee.
McCullough opened with this attention-getter:
“each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
Obama began, quite naturally, by talking about himself. When he got around to mentioning the students it was as a set-up to his campaign slogan, “We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, ‘Yes, we can.’”
Driving the point home McCullough elaborated his argument, “your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.”
Pivoting to the point, McCullough lays down his argument, “we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”
At the same progression in his commencement address Obama is back to talking about, well, Obama. “that’s why I came here today… ever since I became President… my administration has been working hard… We’ve got to encourage change…this isn’t just an issue for me…I’m standing here as President…the education that I received…I’m so blessed… in my life.”
In the moments when Obama actually speaks of the young students he lathers them with exactly the sort of banal accolades McCullough warns against.
The message McCullough concludes with is to seek a satisfying inner life. He encourages his audience to live not for attention, or self-indulgence, and certainly not a pat on the head, but to pursue knowledge, exercise free-will, an achieve service to a greater good.
The young folks at Booker T. got a far different message. There can be no doubt that the kids in Memphis lack the advantages of kids sent to Wellesley, but Obama uses that fact to bestow upon them the mantle of the victim. “you’re from South Memphis. Yes, you’ve always been underdogs,” and reminds the young that their newly won diploma does not “just change how the world sees us. They [the diplomas] change how we see ourselves.”
The delivery of Obama’s rhetoric – his command and cadence – may be superior to McCullough, but his words are sorely inferior. Having written more than few speeches, and witnessed countless others, I have come to the belief that a good speech does a few simple things. A good speech engages and challenges. That is, a well-written speech is a small part inspiration, but for the most part it must be instructive. In the best speeches, the orator can do this while possessing the courage to speak publicly the truth that all souls know, but too few acknowledge. By doing this, the speaker gives an example of leadership – he forsakes the cheap applause of feeding yipping egos for the rewards of truth.
There is no comparison between the commencement address of Obama and McCullough. Where the President vacillates between his obtuse self-congratulations and risk-less compliments, McCullough – like a good teacher – pushes his students, risks receiving their sneers, and by doing so, puts their needs before his own.
Of course masterful oration is not a prerequisite of being an American President, but a President should be a good leader. To that end Mr. Obama would do well to forget his own words and listen to the message of the English teacher.