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Listening To The Great Orator


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Did you hear the speech President Obama delivered in Cairo week before last? I don’t mean just the words but the sound, the tone, the delivery – the way he actually articulated his sentences, the cadences, the pauses and the breaks for applause.

I did. But I did not hear it quite the way so many pundits did. There is no question the president is a great orator. He has the ability to use words to gain attention and focus concentration on important components of his beliefs. He has a basic, even innate, psychological insight into how to use words and he does it very well.

Three things about the Cairo speech, though, disturbed me. The first relates not directly to Obama but to his audience. They were polite and did a great deal of applauding. That’s good. As president of the United States, Obama merits that basic respect and more.

But there was absolutely no applause whenever he mentioned Israel. I wonder if he or anyone in his entourage noticed. And if they did, how they interpreted it.

Obama made two statements about Israel that repeatedly echo in my mind. The first sounded like little more then a nod to fanatic Islam’s denials and lies about the Holocaust: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

I would suggest that Obama read the history of the Jewish people and perhaps Ruth Wisse’s Jews and Power in order to understand that it is not just a tragic history that affords Jews the right to a homeland, but a strong history of faith and determination.

The president also stated, “many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away.” The tone shift to this sentence indicated a fear, an emotional glitch of sorts, in Obama’s voice. The slight inflection, the shift of his shoulders, suggested he was not being completely honest about this point.

It is hard to know just where Obama was leading. Still, the confident orator did not stand firm on this point when he delivered it. The real question is whether Obama is trying to reestablish that old bugaboo of moral equivalence for acts of violence versus acts of self-defense.

Howard Fineman pointed out in Newsweek that Obama’s skills as an orator allowed him to convince the great majority of American citizens to overlook the fact that the Obamas sat in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church for so many years listening to Wright spew hate about America and Jews without so much as uttering a word in response.

In a speech Obama gave in Philadelphia during the presidential campaign he eloquently expounded on what it meant to be a black man in America. But in doing so he distracted voters from the main issue of the moment – his affiliation with Wright. Had he not done so, many believe Obama might not have been elected.

As someone who has lived through race riots and possesses an understanding of and appreciation for issues of human equality, I think America made a wonderful step forward by electing a black man as president. But in listening to Obama speak I have developed a concern not unlike that expressed by Newsweek’s Fineman.

I wonder whether Obama is not just a great orator but also a sophist – someone with an enhanced ability to manipulate rhetoric. He can debate all sides of a point with grace and ease but he may not have a fixed opinion or understanding of the broader issues – or worse, he is manipulating them toward a different end.

Obama was raised in a strong academic tradition of liberal discourse. The Ivy League education he received is second to none and better than many. Steeped in that tradition is the use of words: communication is viewed as the tool to heal all rifts.

As a professional who strongly believes communication is necessary for success, I admire his great abilities. But I also know that one must be honest in approaching those with whom you wish to communicate. Obama says he is doing so, but his audience, his shifting tonality, and his apparent leanings toward moral equivalence – along with his sophistry – leave me concerned.

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