On a somewhat weekly basis, Garrison Keillor writes a column in the Chicago Tribune. Personally, I prefer his columns that speak on cultural and social issues or that poke at human foibles such as he does on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. When he writes on politics, often his views comes through not as an uninvolved bystander but he gets involved with his subject. I doubt he recognizes the legitimacy of the George W. Bush presidency as he refers to the “Current Occupant.”
In the column linked to above he contrasts W. with Barack Obama. Basically, he likes how Obama speaks. He is less than impressed with the speaking of “the Current Occupant.” Of course this neglects the fact that President Bush has been elected president twice and his speaking wasn’t an issue. Nor does it recognize that Al Gore and John Kerry are not exactly rhetorical wizards, either. I actually keep tapes of speeches by Mssrs. Gore and Kerry for those evenings I suffer from insomnia.
Now, the style of speaking is one thing. But what about substance? In Mr. Keillor’s column you will notice praise for Obama’s speaking style. There is no mention of Obama’s actual message, which is, what, exactly? “Change.” OK, what will he change and how will he change it? What is the substance of change? A new “Occupant” in the White House? Well, that will happen regardless. A person can only serve two terms. Beyond that, no one knows what change Obama has in mind.
Let’s put it another way. If a pastor has outstanding rhetorical skills, but the members of that church go home and beat their wives and children, cheat from the poor, steal from the neighbors, and cheat on their spouses, then that pastor is not an effective preacher. He is just a good speaker.
What many also forget is that Adolph Hitler was likewise a spellbinding speaker. Mr. Keillor, are you sure you still want to place that great an emphasis on speaking skills?
Speaking is something the president does. But it is not the only thing. A president needs to see the big picture, to see how things work and interact, to recognize the dynamism of life and not get caught up in details assuming a static picture. Events change. A president needs to have a compass to guide his or her decisions and the courage to stick with those decisions. A little humility and flexibility to change if things don’t work out helps as well.
Finally, who does Mr. Keillor see on the Fall ballot? He contrasts Obama with the “Current Occupant.” The problem is, the “Current Occupant” is not on the ballot. Obama is running against Senator McCain. Perhaps Senator Obama’s path to glorious history is made more certain if he could run against George W. Bush, but Mr. Bush will not and cannot be on the ballot.