The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tim Knight Headshot

Watching the Watchdog: Why Obama's Speech Fell Flat

Posted: Updated:


Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

A few years ago, Patrick Watson, who is one of Canada's great broadcast journalists, does a commentary about an American election for one of their networks.

"I wonder," he muses in that famous thinking-out-loud Watson style, "if Ronald Reagan knew he'd become the head of two countries when he finally made it into the White House? Because every important decision he makes on the economy ... or environmental or social issues ... foreign affairs ... war and peace ... has a profound effect on Canada."

Watson's wise words come to mind while I watch the Democratic National Convention this week. Twenty-one years later, the words are a useful reminder of our often incestuous relationship with that battered nation.

Something else strikes me while former U.S. president Bill Clinton makes a speech supporting Barack Obama's re-election. Even in this age of Svengali-ish performance coaches, very few politicians, either in Canada or at the two huge American political conventions, know how to make really effective speeches.

(Very few broadcast journalists know how to tell really effective on-air news stories either. But that's a previous column.)

To simplify a rather complex matter, the art of great speechifying is to take ownership of the information away from the script -- those black marks on white paper -- so the speaker becomes the primary source of the information and can think it out loud.

Singer Kathy Mattea knows this: "It's got to come from the heart, If you want it to work."

Like Patrick Watson the broadcaster, Bill Clinton has learned this skill. It doubles, triples, quadruples the impact of his words. Makes them memorable long after the event is over. Turns mere information into music. Sometimes even poetry.

For instance, there's no sign of a written script -- or the teleprompter he's using as an aid -- when Clinton smiles out at the 20,000 people in the hall and announces:

"I want to nominate a man cool on the outside but burning for America on the inside. A man who believes we can build a new American Dream economy driven by innovation and creativity, education and cooperation. A man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.

And: "I love our country -- and I know we're coming back. For more than 200 years, through every crisis, we've always come out stronger than we went in. And we will again as long as we do it together. We champion the cause for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor -- to form a more perfect union."

Clinton also has the guts to ad lib. Which makes an enormous difference to a speaker's credibility. The whole speech starts to sound extemporaneous when Clinton abandons his script to add:

"Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it."

I believe that he believes.

Bill Clinton's speech is great storytelling told by a splendid storyteller. It has context, foreshadowing, dramatic development, climax and denouement. It's dramatic, coherent, creative, original. Designed with intelligent contrast, fine pacing, clever highs and lows. It sparks intense emotions. It inspires.

Above all, because Clinton thinks it out loud, sees the scenes, feels the emotions, his speech is first class performance art.

All this is preamble to my professional frustration with Barack Obama, the subject of Clinton's speech. The man I call "that great orator" only last week.

Seems he writes most of the speech himself. And most is very well-written:

"Now I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades."

And: "But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I'm asking you to choose that future."

And: "We won't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories and we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth."

Nothing really big to stir the blood, of course. No end to the endlessly debilitating war on drugs. No closing of Guantanamo. No seriously raising taxes on the rich.

Even so, by most standards, it's an excellent speech. Beats the hell out of most of those dreary speeches by politicians in both parties who load lie on lie, cliché on cliché, bromide on bromide.

It's in the delivery where it falls down. Clinton, earlier, does so much better. Michelle is better. And for the Republicans, Ann Romney ("tonight, I want to talk to you about love"). And Condoleezza Rice (who doesn't use the Teleprompter at all).

That's because the man who speaks these lines isn't really believing them any more. He's not the same shining, new leader for America whose speech only four years ago inspires so many people to believe that a new day has dawned. And there's new hope for America. And because of that new hope for America, new hope for the world.

Instead, this decent man, one of the world's great orators seems tired, frustrated, unfulfilled, too often irritated. That famous smile is strained now. The famous confidence is ragged at the edges.

Obama seldom uses his centre Teleprompter screen, the one which connects him directly to his TV audience. Instead, he works the side monitors, away from the TV audience. His pacing is off. There's little respect for highs and lows in the drama of the speech, too many sentences delivered at exactly the same one-note pitch and tone. He reads his Teleprompter too loud, too fast, too often.

Doesn't see scenes. Doesn't feel emotions.

Everything to this obviously worried man is terribly important. And in speechifying, when everything's terribly important, nothing is important.

Obama has to be really deeply worried about the next election to agree to follow a Bill Clinton speech at his own convention. So worried that he's taking the big chance, forgetting the old political maxim -- never let them see you sweat.

This night, Barack Obama, most powerful man in the planet's most powerful nation, sweats at his own nomination convention.

While the world -- and the Republicans who hate his guts -- watch and wonder.