Monday, January 26, 2009

When Obama tells a story, we listen

Robert McCrum writing in The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2009

Malia Obama, aged 10, got it in one. "The first African-American president?" she is said to have twitted her father on the eve of the inauguration. "Better be good." It was more than good; it was a thrilling example of America reinventing itself to the world. When President Obama had finished speaking, a new page had been turned and naysayers like crotchety Gore Vidal, who echoes the common complaint that Obama is nothing but rhetoric, all hat and no cattle, had been put in their place.

Hillary Clinton expressed a similar objection during the campaign, trying to paint her opponent as slick but empty. But as Obama's election proves, these critics have missed the point. His rhetoric is not so much about big ideas, expressed in ringing phrases. These were strikingly absent last Tuesday, as if to demonstrate the gravity of the world crisis. No, it is all about storytelling.
Look at Obama's speeches; each tells a simple, compelling story.
The famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention? We might appear divided, red and blue, but we are one country, full of optimism.
The 2007 announcement of his "improbable" candidacy? I'm following in Lincoln's footsteps. You all know what a long-shot contender he was. Watch me, I'm on the right side of history.
The justly celebrated "race speech" of March 2008? I'm disowning Reverend Wright's crazy comments, but I stand by the bitter history that inspired them. There's race anger on both sides of the black-white divide. Who says I'm a lightweight?

People often talk about his books. The Audacity of Hope is really a brilliant cuttings job. His 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father is the one to look at. It's an American classic, written with grace and precision. More than that, it's wonderfully well constructed - as a story. In college, apparently, Obama had aspirations to write fiction; he has a novelist's sense of narrative. The story he tells is that age-old tale of a young man searching for, and finding, his true self.

Read McCrum's full, thoughtful piece here.

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