It wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama’s speeches were being hailed as “extraordinary” “rhetorical magic” (Joe Klein in Time) that should be “required reading in classrooms” (Bob Herbert in the New York Times). Pity the poor grade-schoolers who have to be on the bus at 5 a.m. for a daylong slog through the 4,000-word sludge of the president’s Nobel thank you. Rich Lowry, my boss at National Review, writes that Obama has become a “crashingly banal” bore. The good news is that he “is not nearly as dull as, say, Herman van Rompuy.”
Oh, come on. Herman van Rompuy. He’s some Belgian cove who was recently appointed “president” of “Europe,” whatever that means. He’s hardly a household name, even in the van Rompuy household. I’m not sure if Belgian TV has a Belgian Idol or Dancing with the Belgians, but, if so, he’d be knocked out in round one.
Nonetheless, Rich Lowry does “President” van Rompuy a grave injustice. The boringness is, as the computer chappies say, not a bug but a feature. Like everything in Europe, the “presidency” was a backroom stitch-up, and neither the French nor the Germans wanted a charismatic glamorpuss in the gig stealing their respective thunders. A Belgian nonentity was just what they were looking for. Being a nondescript yawneroo was the minimum entry qualification. And, by those standards, Herman van Rompuy is performing brilliantly.
By contrast, the point of Barack Obama is to dazzle. That’s why he got all the magazine covers of him emerging topless from the Hawaiian surf as if his beautifully sculpted pectorals were long-vanished Pacific atolls restored to sunlight after he’d fulfilled his pledge to lower the oceans before the end of his first term. The squealing Obammyboppers of the media seem to have gotten more muted since those inaugural specials hit the newsstands back in late January. His numbers have fallen further faster than those of any other president — because of where he fell from: As Evan Thomas of Newsweek drooled a mere six months ago, Obama was “standing above the country . . . above the world. He’s sort of God.” That’s a long drop.
The Obama speechwriting team don’t seem to realize that. They seem to be the last guys on the planet in love with the sound of his voice and their one interminable tinny tune with its catchpenny hooks. The usual trick is to position their man as the uniquely insightful leader pitching his tent between two extremes no sane person has ever believed: “There are those who say there is no evil in the world. There are others who argue that pink fluffy bunnies are the spawn of Satan and conspiring to overthrow civilization. Let me be clear: I believe people of goodwill on all sides can find common ground between the absurdly implausible caricatures I attribute to them on a daily basis. We must begin by finding the courage to acknowledge the hard truth that I am living testimony to the power of nuance to triumph over hard truth and come to the end of the sentence on a note of sonorous, polysyllabic, if somewhat hollow, uplift. Pause for applause.”
It didn’t come but once at Oslo last week, where Obama got a bad press for blowing off the King of Norway’s luncheon. In Obama’s honor. Can you believe this line made it into the speech?
“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war.”
Well, there’s a surprise. When you consider all the White House eyeballs that approve a presidential speech, it’s truly remarkable that there’s no one to scribble on the first draft: “Scrub this, Fred. It makes POTUS sound like a self-aggrandizing buffoon.” It’s not even merely the content, but the stylistic tics: “I do not bring with me” — as if I, God of Evan Thomas’s Newsweek, am briefly descending to this obscure Scandinavian backwater bearing wisdom from beyond the stars.