Saturday, June 19, 2010

On Speechifying

So pretty much everyone hated Obama’s Oval Office address.  The criticisms range far and wide, but nothing I read really caught my attention until this piece by Marc Theissen in which Obama’s speech was compared (kind of) to Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech from 1940.

Theissen predictably zeroes in on the final paragraph of Churchill’s address, highlighting its moral clarity and firm purpose, and contrasts it against the final, cringe-inducing Obama sign-off, where we were told of our future:

What has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny—our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there.

Theissen is right, of course, to lambast this inanity.  Even if this were a true sentiment (and I don’t think it is), it is not the sort of thing leaders should be saying in the midst of a crisis.

Theissen is wrong, however, not to wonder why Churchill did not come up with some stupid, unhelpful, discouraging platitude at the end of his speech.  One supposes that he has bought into the myth, that somehow Churchill was more than an ordinary man, placed at Britain’s helm by providence in her hour of desperate need.  But this is to ignore the content of his speech.

Churchill’s address is 4,352 words long.  The final, bracing paragraph is a mere 181.  Gee whiz, what the heck was he blabbering about for the first twenty minutes?

95% of Churchill’s address is an in-depth assessment of the situation.  He recounts the failure of British divisions to prop up the crumbling French line in the Battle of France (and takes a shot at French coordinators for slowing the process).  He explains the numbers of combat-ready troops that have been transferred back to Britain during the evacuation of Dunkirk.  He discusses the current strength of the Navy and responds to objections about their competence to repel a German invasion across the channel.  He describes the superiority of German airpower and calmly, matter-of-factly prepares the people for a sustained bombing campaign.  At every point, he is detailed, honest, forthright, and yet, despite the mounting odds, optimistic and inspiring.

Yes, one might be forgiven for noticing that Churchill appears to be speaking to adults.  He lets them know what his advisors have been saying.  He explains what has worked, what hasn’t, and how this situation is similar and different from the previous crisis (WWI; Churchill slyly reminds his hearers that he was in government then too, and has seen problems like this before).

By the time Churchill’s rhetoric begins to soar, there are a number of good, rational reasons to agree that yes, we have a fighting chance, yes, we have shown uncommon valor in situations like this before, and yes, this will be a difficult, trying time, but yes, we can win this thing.  At the end of the speech, we know how and why it is critical to have the air force able to support the naval blockade at short range and how this will help to repel an invasion from Europe.  We know what British troops are doing to stop Mussolini’s contribution to Hitler’s war effort and why it is so critical to cut supply lines in the Southern part of the continent.

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, information.  And information gives us a reason to believe that by virtuous conduct, sacrifice, and a terrific exhibition of will, Hitler can be defeated.

Contrast this to the presidential excrement of this week.

Obama’s speech:

Total words: 2,713

Words imparting actual information regarding the oil spill: 470

Yep, less than 25%.  And what kind of details are we given about what has been tried?  None.  Only that technology is being used and that there is a scientist thinking about it and an admiral sending troops.  What will these troops do?  Who knows, but if needed, they’ll be able to “process claims.”  What has the scientist provided?  “Ideas.”  Thank God.  The bureaucrats are on the case.

There are literally three sentences in the entire speech that refer to actual things that are being or have been done to address the actual oil spill:

Because of our efforts, millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water through burning, skimming and other collection methods. Over five and a half million feet of boom has been laid across the water to block and absorb the approaching oil. We've approved the construction of new barrier islands in Louisiana to try to stop the oil before it reaches the shore, and we're working with Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to implement creative approaches to their unique coastlines.

That’s it.  Burning and skimming (Why?  What percentage of the oil has this cleaned up?  Can it reliably be used to clean up more?  How do we know?).  Boom laid (Why?  What does this do?).  Barrier islands (How long will this take?  How expensive will it be?  How effective will it be in stopping the oil from reaching the shore?).  Creative approaches (Really?  “Creative approaches”?  Are you serious?).

Churchill talked to the British people as their fellow man.  I know you’re scared.  And there’s good reason to be.  I know you’ve got questions and fears.  Some of them are justified.  Some aren’t.  Let me break it down for you piece by piece.

He’s like the mechanic who explains exactly what’s wrong with your engine and what he’s going to do to make it work again.  Only this engine is a nation, and the work to fix it will involve everyone.  Obama’s speech presupposes that we don’t really care.  We don’t really want to know the details.  We just want some guy to reassure us that everything’s going to be okay.  Because, hey, it barely matters.  Eventually this will probably work itself out, right?  Important people are on it.

Dear Mr. President,

Do you have any idea what its like when your car breaks down, and you’ve got no money, and you’ve got to get to work?  Do you understand that when your back’s to the wall you need someone to break it down and tell you what’s going to happen and how it’s going to work out?  Or are you the kind of guy who has always had an out, who doesn’t worry about what’s wrong with the engine because you can just rent a car for as long as it’s needed? 

Either you don’t have any idea what’s going on, or you just assume that we don’t care.  Neither of those possibilities reassures me.  They both just make me sad.

Oh well, the only people who really lose are the dumb hicks in Louisiana. 

So screw it, let’s pass Cap and Trade.