President Obama talks the talk

On 10 December, 2013, politicians past and present gathered to join thousands of South Africans in the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, for a service in memory of Nelson Mandela. Many speeches were delivered, not all praised by the British media. I was too busy to see any of it at the time, but the most frequent criticism I subsequently read and heard was that some politicians had (ab)used the high profile occasion to deliver self-serving political messages. The exception, according to the BBC, was President Obama; but then, to the BBC, POTUS can do no wrong. Let’s see what we think.

Obama has a power-pose which comes from the angle of his head. He tips it up a little. I assume it to to be a pose, though it may come naturally from habit. Is he accustomed to having to look up? Is he short in stature? I have no personal knowledge of this because he hasn’t met me, but it has always struck me as a pose. As poses go, if you must pose, it’s quite a good pose.

Why is he shouting? With that battery of microphones, and speakers all over the stadium, he could be heard if he whispered. I know there’s a great amount of crowd noise, but if that noise drowned his whisper it would also drown his shout. Also, if you want your audience to be quieter the secret is not to speak louder but softer. That will make them go quiet. He knows that: he knows the power of quiet intensity. He briefly used it at 08:40 in this speech. He knows he doesn’t need to shout to be heardTherefore I repeat the question: why is he shouting?

There is a simple answer: he does not want the audience quieter. He wants that noise! Please do not misinterpret my pointing this out, but another very effective and skilled speaker used the same technique at Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s. I draw no parallels between the men; I merely observe that using a noisy audience as part of your stage management is not a new technique. It wasn’t new in the 1930s: Shakespeare had Mark Anthony doing it in Julius Caesar.

The British media complained of politicians using this stage to promote themselves. What did they expect of politicians? Obama is a politician: he did it too. He may have done it covertly, more subtly, … perhaps better (I haven’t seen the others yet) but he did it. This speech is littered with weasel implications, claiming co-ownership of Mandela’s personality, principles, and policy. He is careful to be ‘umble about it, but from his repeated use of Mandela’s Xhosa name, Madiba, to introducing the grievance card with a spurious comparison of the race struggles in their two countries he’s playing the world’s adoring media for all he’s worth.

Obama’s strongest words are not his but Mandela’s, quoted from his speech to the court at his trial in June 1964…

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve; but if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

These are wonderful words; and it is to Obama’s credit that he quoted them. The whole speech could so easily have been wonderful if stripped of its self-serving opportunism. The peroration which he launches at 18:04 with the words, “Let us search for his strength” is magnificent. As a speaker he is so talented! What a pity he leaves me with a taste made sour by his having uttered, with a straight face, the following…

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.

Quite so.

Nelson Mandela – never, never, and never again…

On 10 May, 1994, Nelson Mandela delivered his inaugural speech. Were I an historian I would wax lyrical about the man. Others will assail us with such pronouncements for probably weeks to come. Not I. As but a humble rhetor allow me merely to examine this particular speech and his delivery of it.

For some time I have been sitting, as it were, upon the speech he delivered to ecstatic crowds upon his release from prison in 1990. If you wish you can view that here. The problem with it is that his first audible word arrives eventually at 5:36, preceded by tumultuous cheering, whistling, applause, and “You’ll never walk alone”. His inaugural address was a much more sober affair.

My first observation is that the monumental significance of the occasion, to a very marked degree, got to him. Furthermore he evidently knew that it would – though not a particularly powerful crystal ball would have told anyone that. The speech had been very, very carefully prepared and crafted.

And written down.

“Oh come on, Brian,” I hear you shout in exasperation. “On an occasion such as this you surely won’t begrudge him a script!” No, of course I don’t begrudge him it, but he would have been better without.

I have absolutely no doubt whatever that the speech was written from his heart, but it was spoken from his eyes. And that is, and will always be, the trouble with a scripted speech. Had he known how to structure and prepare even a hugely important speech for an historic occasion like this for delivering without the hindrance of paper, and then trusted himself to shoot it from the hip, he would have spoken it from the heart and that would have made it immeasurably better.

We need not have lost that beautiful symploce beginning at 8:03 – “Let there be … for all”. We certainly would not have needed to have lost that wonderful Face of the speech at 8:30, “Never, never, and never again shall it be …”  Yes, it was wonderful; but watch and you will see he even looked back at the paper for each of the succeeding occasions that he uttered the word, Never”. Did he need to consult his script each time for that word? No, of course not. But that does demonstrate how, when you permit it to control your speech, paper becomes a demanding tyrant. And like all tyrannies it impoverishes what it rules.

Nelson Mandela 18 July, 1918 – 5 December, 2013.

RIP