Politics: Mr. Obama Goes to Philly

Last spring, Barack Obama holed up in a Center City hotel room and crafted the most important speech of his life. How that address came to be — and how people reacted to it — says as much about us as it does about him

There is, however, his opponents say, the small matter of being right. In the first of his two most important speeches, his beautiful 2004 address before the Democratic National Convention, Obama concluded, “The people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president.” But, of course, they weren’t. And then, during the second of his two greatest speeches, he built an argument that Reverend Wright’s vitriol was understandable when viewed through the prism of America’s past. But, of course, it wasn’t. And so Obama did indeed disown the pastor a month after the speech.

Those seem like details, somehow, that exist only in the shadows of the two speeches. And perhaps that’s the nexus where style meets substance. Where eloquence becomes element. In a job where war and peace turn on persuasion — of friends, enemies, countrymen — Barack Obama may be uniquely qualified. That’s because, according to presidential scholar Elvin Lim, he manages to sound both professorial and platitudinous. To a population used to eighth-grade rhetoric, the gorgeous loops and rhythms of Obama’s oratory are intellectually dazzling. And yet his popular, ever-simple phrases — “Yes we can” — reduce the message to something a toddler could grasp.

“He is Janus-like in his language,” Lim says.

NEXT TO ROOSEVELT’S fedora in Cabinet 1A, standing forever in a storage room beneath the Constitution Center, lies the speech.

I had secretly hoped to blow off the dust and discover pages covered with hand-scrawled notes that might reveal something of Obama the orator. Something of his process, his style, his method. Instead, the caretaker removed this: a black plastic binder from a Staples office-supply store — the one at 15th and Chestnut, in particular.

It held a sheath of plastic-sleeved pages filled with impersonal laser-printed words. About two hours before the speech, an aide had run to the supply store and printed it out in oversize letters, for easy readability in case Obama’s teleprompter failed.

And in some way, the binder, set as it was amidst the hat, the music and the early printed Constitution, did reveal something of Obama the orator. It placed him and his style — smooth, modern, oversized for easy access — into the context of American history. He is not yet, in the sense of Lincoln and Roosevelt, a great speaker. He is merely the best we have.