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Political oratory takes center stage at conventions

President Obama made a forceful case at the Democratic National Convention for Hillary Clinton on Wednesday night.
President Obama made a forceful case at the Democratic National Convention for Hillary Clinton on Wednesday night.

WASHINGTON — President Obama, one of the most skilled political speakers of modern times, delivered another memorable performance Wednesday night. Joe Biden fired up Democrats with a shaken fist.

Earlier in the week, Bill Clinton connected emotionally with a back-porch narrative about falling in love with his wife — and why America should, too. Michelle Obama, and Ivanka Trump a week earlier, both won raves with good timing, good writing, and a sense of compassion.

Donald Trump, in his own way, delivered a signature performance in Cleveland, seeking to tap into Americans’ fear and anger with a shouted, 75-minute stemwinder.

Back-to-back political conventions are delivering a mid-summer feast of political oratory, illustrating that prime-time speeches still hold relevance in an era of cable TV sound bites and 140-character attacks. Speaking skill, stage presence, storytelling, and idealism are not yet obsolete.


This year’s convention stages are offering two deeply unpopular candidates an opportunity to cast themselves in a fresh light.

“We live in an era of small, Moneyball politics and runs patched together with data and tweets, but Americans still admire the bases-clearing, rhetorical home-run speech,” said David Wade, a former speechwriter and veteran of five Democratic conventions. “They’re rare, but the scarcity makes powerful speeches that much more disruptive.”

“It’s the Big Bang Theory of political communication because it can reset the political universe,” he added. “Angry tweets disrupt the news cycle, but the rare great speech can still punctuate a moment like nothing else.”

On that score, Democrats, with a well-stocked bench of orators, including the current White House occupants, appear to enjoy an edge. High-wattage speakers Monday night, including Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, helped unify Democrats quickly, while discord marked the Republican National Convention all week. One of the more polished speeches in Cleveland was delivered by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who drew boos in the arena when he pointedly refused to endorse the nominee.


Democrats also have enjoyed better television ratings. On each of the first two nights, around 25 million tuned into the Democratic convention, millions more than Republicans attracted.

These days, it can seem as if the Super Bowl is one of the only moments when we gather and pay attention to the same thing. The rest of the time, we retreat to our own corners of Fox and MSNBC.

In a nation divided, where our dialogue so often seems ripped out of the comment sections and online message boards, these past two weeks are showing the power of leaders sitting down and crafting their thoughts on a legal pad or computer screen.

On the second night of the convention, Democrats had a former president known for his extraordinary communication skills speaking in Philadelphia, while Republicans in Cleveland had Ben Carson, a sleepy-eyed candidate who placed fifth in the Republican primary race. Democrats beat the GOP in second-night ratings by 25 percent.

Melania Trump, in a speech that otherwise surpassed expectations, suffered greatly from charges that she plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech.

Donald Trump later in the week effectively conveyed a message of fear of terrorism and bitterness about the economy. But he lacked one of the chief elements of a good convention speech: optimism. A Gallup poll showed only 35 percent of Americans viewed it as excellent or good, worse than any of the previous nine presidential nominees of either party. (Barack Obama was best at 58 percent in 2008.)


“What Trump offered was a different oratory that fit within his campaign,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It was angry, it was aggressive, it was in your face. There was a back and forth with the delegates with the chants. Trump clearly wants that oratory to be part of the story.”

“It wasn’t conventional political oratory,” he added. “But they had one that fit very well with the campaign he wants to run.”

When Michelle Obama took the stage Monday night, she offered a ray of optimism that countered Trump’s image of domestic chaos and terror in the world. She managed to be both political — touting her husband’s accomplishments and Clinton’s strengths — and apolitical, never mentioning Trump by name.

Given the undivided attention of multiple broadcast networks and a reasonable block of time, her more subtle jabs stood out.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great — that somehow we need to make it great again,” she said. “Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”

Her pedestal was so high that Trump, while using his Twitter account to criticize almost every other Democratic speaker Monday, refrained from knocking her.

Bill Clinton on Tuesday night had an opening like a romance novel: “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl.” It was an unusual approach, using his fraught marriage as the narrative thread of his 45-minute speech.


When Hillary Clinton speaks Thursday night, she faces a steep challenge. She follows some of the best political speakers in modern American history.

Like Trump, she is not known for stellar speech-making. She, too, can seem as if she is screaming her lines.

Soon, the conventions will be over, and we’ll be back to obsessions with polls and Trump’s latest tweets. Debates will follow in the fall.

As if to remind us how quickly the speeches will recede in memory, Trump held a rambling press conference Wednesday morning in which he issued a shocking invitation to the Russians to hack Clinton’s private e-mail account. It captured the day’s media attention.

Matt Viser can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mviser.