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‘The Obama Years: The Power of Words’ Would be Stronger if It Included More of Him Actually Speaking
February 27, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

A new Smithsonian Channel special makes such a strong case for former President Barack Obama’s speechmaking skills that it’s frustrating the special doesn’t include more of them.

The Obama Years: The Power of Words, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Smithsonian, cherry-picks what the producers consider six of Obama’s finest speeches. Cohorts and historians explain why they were so good and why they mattered.  

Selections include his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (right), his somber address after the Sandy Hook school shootings, and his remarks on the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march.

The producers are right. They’re all terrific – what we hear of them.

Experts like historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley weigh in on both these specific speeches and Obama’s broader reverence for the power of words.

Aides Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod recount Obama’s ritual in preparing major speeches, while his speechwriters Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan recall both the preparation and the editing process.

While Obama didn’t have time to write his own speeches, Favreau and Keenan both say he would have loved to. As it was, he composed long passages himself, in longhand, and he fine-tuned everything.

It was Obama’s idea, for instance, to deliver a speech about “grace” (below, right) in the wake of the Charleston church shootings, and to finish it by singing “Amazing Grace.”

The backstories are revealing. The trouble is that the special is only an hour long, and by the time we finish with the talking heads, we get only a brief few minutes of the actual speeches.

It’s frustrating, not just for people who loved Obama, but for anyone interested in assessing the collective impact of presidential speeches.

Including 10-minute excerpts from each speech would have added an hour to the show and made it considerably more satisfying.

What’s clear and unavoidable in watching and listening to Obama is the contrast to our current president.

That’s not a knock on Donald Trump, whose own speeches obviously have been very effective. It’s just that Trump and Obama are yin and yang in what purpose they want a speech to serve.

In fact, they each represent one of the major traditions in American speechmaking, and probably in speechmaking well beyond America.

Trump is the football coach at halftime, or maybe General George Patton, telling the troops there’s an enemy out there that needs to be obliterated. Forget everything else. That’s what we need to do right now. 

Obama is closer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or maybe the Pledge of Allegiance, contemplating the long arc of history by suggesting that America ultimately moves forward and strengthens itself only when it advances toward the higher goal of liberty and justice for all.

There are elements of both inspiration and action in the speeches of most leaders, including Trump and Obama. But speeches, like agendas, have a distinct collective tilt.  

The Power of Words speculates that Obama’s speeches will be read, studied, and admired for what they say about America’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations during his time in office.

That case is strong. It’s just too bad this documentary doesn’t have time for more of the direct examples.

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Smithsonian Channel is half-owned by Showtime-in effect,Sumner Firestone. Like NatGeo's sordid relationship with Rupert Murdoch, enterprises with nonprofit labeling funded and run by very-much for profit by media giants. While I disbelieve any comment Trump makes about the media,when big money hides behind seemingly neutral product,they have no credibility. This is one example. These programs are repeated endlessly,so doing the complete job would only add value to the result. And in 2017,one doesn't have to just read speeches made in the last decade-these are available for both audio and video dissection,capturing the tone and body language of the speaker. This is one noticeable trait of Trump's on-camera bombastic blatherings. Unlike Twitter,one can see his disinterest on many a subject(ignorance?) and,when reading from a teleprompter,his inability to sound natural. One waits for him to go off topic-boo!. Hannity vilified Obama reading-his hero Trump stinks.
Feb 27, 2017   |  Reply
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