Echoes of Hollywood

The Roman pillars and even parts of Obama's speech seem drawn from old movies

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The Gazette, Saturday, August 30, 2008

The U.S. presidential campaign has been compared to the final season of The West Wing, with Barack Obama cast in the Jimmy Smits role as the charismatic Democrat, and John McCain standing in for Alan Alda as the good and decent Republican.

But Obama's acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver Thursday night was rather more like the climactic scene from The American President, an earlier film drama from the same creator, Aaron Sorkin.

"If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander-in-chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have," Obama declared to the crowd of 84,000, and millions more watching on television.

And then: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

In the 1995 film that preceded the celebrated television series, Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd holds an impromptu White House news conference where he takes down his right-wing opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss.

"Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it," Douglas says. "It's that he can't sell it."

And then, challenging his Republican opponent, he concludes: "If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Tell me where and when and I'll show up."

That wasn't the only echo of Hollywood in the evening's production. The set, complete with Romanesque pillars, was meant to invoke the monuments of the Mall in Washington, specifically the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech, 45 years to the day before Obama's acceptance address. Actually, it looked more like the set of the chariot race in Ben-Hur.

And Obama came both to praise McCain and to bury him. To praise him for his service to America, and to bury him for being the heir of George W. Bush.

Obama started out as the candidate of hope and change. In his acceptance speech he sounded more like a street-smart pol from the south side of Chicago.

He served notice that the Republicans had better not try any of their swift boating tactics on him. No one is going to accuse him of being soft on Osama and the gang.

"John McCain likes to say that he would follow bin Laden to the gates of hell," Obama intoned, "but he won't even go to the cave where he lives."

And where would that be? In the hills of Pakistan. So Obama, having denounced Bush's invasion of Iraq, and decried the unilateral Bush Doctrine in foreign affairs, would presumably invade an unstable nuclear power to get Osama. The rhetoric might be compelling, but the logic is deeply flawed.

It wasn't a great speech, and by Obama's elevated standards of rhetoric, it wasn't even a very good one. You can't take the high road, and travel the low one at the same time. And every time Obama aimed for the high road, he drove into a ditch.

Other than an allusion to the anniversary of King's speech, Obama made no reference to the remarkable fact that he is the first black nominee of a major party for president. Nor did he refer to the challenges that still lie before him in that regard. He might propose a post-racial presidency, but he will have to face down the race issue to get there. It is the elephant in the room.

For the rest, to turn around John F. Kennedy's celebrated New Frontier speech, Obama proposed not a set of challenges but a set of promises, not what he intends to ask of the American people, but what he intends to offer them. A drearily familiar Democratic litany of promises, on everything from health care, to trade unionism, to funding for university tuition.

Instead of a clarion call, Obama offered a shopping list, or what is known in the speechwriting trade as a Christmas tree, weighed down with ornaments.

Perhaps it was a smart speech, as many television commentators observed, in that Obama filled in the blanks on what he meant by change, and served notice that he could play a hard court game of basketball. In those terms, Obama did what he had to do, and it might have been quite effective. But there was nothing new or different about it.

If necessity if the mother of invention, then perhaps politics is the mother of necessity. And that's a great pity.

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