The entire party convention is a collective act of that kind. It’s a throwback, a holdover, a relic, like baseball. It’s also, weirdly, a formal, public celebration of spoken language, a kind of political eisteddfod. A lot of the language I heard in the roughly thirty-seven speeches to which I listened was undoubtedly banal. The technique known as “staying on message”—picking one or two or at the most six things to talk about, and talking about them ceaselessly and in unvarying terms until they are no longer questioned, challenged, or even, really, remarked as they waft past the listener’s ear—is hell on poetry. The decimated vocabulary of modern American politics, confined to dwell on those islands called Family, Patriotism, Change, Future, and the Choices (Right and Dangerous), beggars most speeches down to their rhetorical rags and bones. In Denver the nearby presence of the Rockies tempted many of the speechwriters to pile up mountains of cliché.
Staying on message also tends to diminish the content of oratory. Most of the speakers offered up pretty much the same things, mutatis mutandi for region and generation and role in society, as those who preceded or followed them. The Message of a campaign is like a textured soy protein that appears at every meal in the guise of chicken or pork or the governor of Indiana, nutritious in its way but ultimately jading to the palate. “That is not the change we need,” Evan Bayh said, speaking of Senator McCain. And Amanda Kubik, a twenty-seven-year-old delegate from Fargo, North Dakota, said, “Barack Obama is the change we need.” In his acceptance speech, Joe Biden employed the phrase “that’s the change we need” five times in epistrophic succession.
I wondered if Obama ever wearied of the sham and extravagance and artifice. I wondered if his writerly ear rebelled at the nightly catalog of corn, platitudes, and dead language, or if perhaps the pragmatism so routinely underestimated by Obama’s opponents took satisfaction in the seamless forcefield of message generated nightly by the well-vetted objects of his speechwriters’ attentions. Or maybe, I thought, with his lyric grasp of US history, Obama enjoyed as much as I did the interstitial bits of procedural prose (“Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Democrats and friends, we bring you greetings from the great state of Georgia, the thirteenth state in our union, birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr….where we look to the future with an optimistic gaze…we, the empire state of the South, the jewel of the South, the great state of Georgia…), scenting the convention with their panatela reek of mock pomposity, the all but inaudible echoed trumpetings of the electoral past. Mostly, like everyone, I found myself wondering about the speech that he was going to give on Thursday night.
… Oratory demands not only stagecraft and poetry but the creation of a persona, and in this sense Michelle Obama’s speech carried twice the burden of any other speaker at the convention: she had to define herself, and in so doing, help to more sharply define her husband.