by Adam | As I worked my way through the crowds, onto the train, and back to my house last night, I had nearly two hours to digest the speech before I had a chance to hear what any talking head or internet commentator had to say. I'll admit that I was a bit surprised by the almost uniformly high praise. Not because I thought it was anything short of a fantastic speech, but because, for me, it wasn't really anything new.
As an prologue, let me make a brief comment on oratory style. The two greatest Democratic orators of my lifetime are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As Josh Marshall noted four years back, the source of their oratorical power is quite different, though. When Bill is on, he makes it feel like you and him are the only ones talking - like he has his hand on your shoulder and the two of you are standing in a quiet hallway somewhere. It's fundamentally a conversational style, but he's so utterly un-self-conscious that he can pull it off while speaking to an enormous crowd.
Obama's draw is decidedly more collective - he draws the crowd together and makes you feel like you and him are part of something bigger than either of you. He doesn't make you forget that you are part of a big crowd - rather, he embraces it and draws on it.
It's been a roller-coaster week for me, emotionally, and I'm so exhausted that I can barely think straight. I got back from a wedding of a lifelong friend on Monday, and crossed the country again the next day to bury my grandmother. Yesterday afternoon I returned to Denver and only a couple of hours later I was off to Mile High Stadium for the last night of the DNC. I made it into the stadium just after Dean's speech and in time for most of the big speeches of the night. Emotionally, I was pretty spent already, so I had perhaps a bit more detached take on things.
There's no question that the atmosphere was positively electric. Not to overuse a cliche, but this was the sort of night I will probably be telling my kids about someday. I really liked many of the earlier speeches, most notably Al Gore's. Much like with John Kerry the night before, I think Gore's close loss to Bush has allowed him to tap an emotional core that could have served him well as the nominee. But Obama's speech took the crowd to an entirely different level.
I haven't been to a whole lot of political events in my life, but I can't imagine many of them maintain that level of energy for such a sustained period. He was spot-on for the full 40 minutes, and kept folks riveted all the way up in the nosebleed seats. That said, I expected the same sorts of lukewarm responses and conservative criticisms from the pundits for his past speeches. In stead we got bonafide conservatives like Pat Buchannan and Alex Castellanos tripping over themselves to compliment Obama.
As I walked out of the stadium, I said a couple things to my wife that, in retrospect, may explain the reaction from the punditry. One thing I said was that I thought this was the most thorough speech Obama has ever made. I've watched a ton of Obama speeches this year, so there was very little in this speech (aside from some one-liners and rhetorical flourishes) that was new to me. The difference was the scope of the speech. It hit so many points, and was so complete in its deconstruction of the McCain criticisms, that it was harder to find any gaps to attack as an analyst. It's hard to hit him on any of the popular criticisms, from "lack of substance", to "lack of foreign policy cred", to "questionable patriotism/character", when they are all addressed in one single speech. Quite simply, Obama didn't leave much room for criticism.
The second thing I said was that, really, an average Obama speech is better, in terms of rhetorical power, than any speech most politicians make in their lifetimes. Although many Democrats and media junkies have had lots of exposure to Obama, this was Obama's first unedited speech with a truly national audience in a primetime slot. That he nailed it means the pundits can't really hide from Obama's popular appeal any more.
Put the two together, and from a pundit's perspective, this was basically the last chance to board the Obama express and "predict" his victory. Many of them chose to get on.