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American idle

And so another week draws to a close on the intensifying presidential race between distinguished war hero John McCain and noted community organiser Barack Obama. How fared this country's media commentators in covering the stateside excitement?

As usual this election, it seems that New Zealand pundits tend to read their own almost uniformly Democratic hopes into the coming American contest, bathing as they go in the mass messianism of the Obama campaign, which, as American pundit Joe Klein observed a while back, “all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.”

Fair enough. Still, it probably helps one’s credibility as a long-distance stateside observer — not to mention saving one’s readers from getting unduly weirded out — to remember that opinions are free but facts are sacred.

Take the popular Noelle McCarthy, who declared from her regular op-ed perch in the New Zealand Herald the other weekend that, in the words of the headline to her authoritative-sounding prognostication, “Obama the orator has already made history.”

In addressing his countrymen at the Democratic Party Convention, the presidential contender “was addressing millions of us all over the world,” McCarthy gushed, invoking those like her who had been “waiting in the wings with him before his speech wondering if it would do the job, if it would take it's place in the great history of American oratory.”

Maybe Obama’s speech did make it to the great American political pantheon, maybe it didn’t (although let’s not get into that), but the Herald pundit’s credentials for passing momentous judgment surely came up a little short — and she wasn’t the only one.

In her original column, she wrote: “The tradition of American oratory is a fine one, from the first rousing addresses of Thomas Jefferson, to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, and the showmanship of Dwight D Eisenhower, who used his skill as a wordsmith to put heart into Americans devastated by the Great Depression.”

Interesting examples. Jefferson, America’s third president and the author of the inarguably rousing Declaration of Independence, may have been a visionary wordsmith (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”), but McCarthy is possibly the only commentator in history to anoint the famously shy leader as an orator of consequence.

Jefferson’s first public speech as president, his inaugural address, may have been an intellectual masterpiece, as Forrest McDonald argues in his excellent Jefferson appreciation in the Wall Street Journal’s terrific collection of essays on American leaders, but the chronic stutterer delivered it “in a voice so unprepossessing that few could hear it, much less be inspired by it. Thereafter he communicated with Congress solely in writing.”

So much for Jefferson as speechmaker. But what about Eisenhower, who, McCarthy insists, parlayed “his skill as a wordsmith to put heart into Americans devastated by the Great Depression”?

That also seems a curious judgment on the onetime military commander who came to office 20 years after the Depression, in a period of unparalleled peace, prosperity and economic expansion (give or take the Korean war) and was never on record as ever having said anything of consequence about the economic tribulations of an earlier generation.

Realising this last point, perhaps, the Herald moved swiftly to amend the online version of McCarthy’s political exegesis, switching the identity of the American leader whose addresses supposedly lifted American’s out of their Depression funk from Eisenhower to, of all people, Theodore Roosevelt.

But the republic’s 26th president, as Teddy Roosevelt was, saw out his two terms in the Oval Office 20 years before the Great Depression, and actually died a decade ahead of the Wall Street Crash. Perhaps the loquacious commander-in-chief McCarthy had in mind was Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Or Jimmy Carter? It’s a bit hard to tell.

Nonetheless, the local pundit concluded on an equally weighty note, declaring that Obama’s great accomplishment had already been to allow pundits everywhere to “wait in hope for victory, and for a presidential inauguration speech that can and must take its place in the great history of American oratory.”

President Lyndon Milhous Kennedy couldn’t have put it more stirringly.

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[NOTE TO READERS: We're scheduled to appear on Russell Brown’s Media7 show this Wednesday as part of a roundtable discussion on the rough art — or is that the academically honed profession? — of contemporary journalism. The programme airs from 9.30pm, with repeat screenings available on demand and more information likely next week over on PublicAddress. Wellington radio listeners can also catch us the day before on our regular fortnightly spot talking media and music on VBC 88.3FM on Tuesday morning, 9.45am.]

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Comments and questions
3

Just shows the power of oratory, eh David? Facts are secondary to the power of the presentation: the words used and in which order, the pace, the appeal to the heart etc are all, and even the most seasoned journos can be swept up in that (hey, good to see the human side...) And in this day and age, when oratory is not on every street corner, people start haphazardly flicking through the history books to find those who've delighted and appalled the world in this way before (journalists love to compare: 'the worst disaster' 'the biggest event since...' etc I'll never forget a certain TV reporter saying an boat accident on the Thames once was one of the worst in a long time because among the dead were a number of young nurses!) The thing is, really good orators are few and far between - in living memory anyway - but it's not a good look to start attributing this talent to the wrong people. You are right, when journalists start looking at history to explain or inform the present they should apply the same rigour as they do to reporting on the events in front of them.

why do most nz journalists prefer the protectionist (ie, would not be in nz interests) barack obama over freetradin' (ie, would very much be in nz interests) john mccain??

Hi Mary: Points all noted, thank you. Just off the top of our head--and FWIW--here are some of our picks for the great American political speeches of the past half-century:

"I Have a Dream" (Address On The Washington Mall, 1963')--Martin Luther King Jr
On The Fall Of Dien Bien Phu--John Foster Dulles
"The Two American Cities" (Keynote Address For The Democratic Convention, 1984)--Mario Cuomo
"The Shining City on a Hill" (Presidential Farewell, 1989)--Ronald Reagan
"God Hasn't Finished With Me Yet" (Address To The Democratic Convention, 1988(?))--Jesse Jackson

Does Nixon's 'Checkers' speech count as well?