Safire Ire

hissing at william safire hissing at obama’s acceptance speech.

William Safire’s disappointing column about Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Denver Democratic National Convention (“The Audacity of Hype,” New York Times, 31 August 2008) put partisan politics about rhetorical analysis.

In the essay, Safire wanted to have it both ways: he wanted to stand above the scene to provide an objective analysis of Obama’s speech and he wanted to slam Obama no matter what he did. He wanted to play the role of Greek chorus, but wound up sounding more like a Republican hack.

Safire’s confusion of the two roles bespeaks a kind of rage at Obama’s ability to shift and adjust to the needs of the occasion. Obama’s gift is that he seems able to play to multiple audiences in multiple registers. He can be a nobleman and an everyman, a populist and a centrist, a stern father figure and compassionate believer in the role of government to help people. He can stand at the center of a political spectacle while seeming able to reach through it to connect to the listener. Obama’s abilities frightened Safire’s old Republican soul.

The columnist’s critique of the candidate was so surprisingly clueless and tone deaf, so desperate to downplay the successes of the speech. In fact, when he wasn’t desperately turned to stale Republican distortions of Democratic positions, Safire grudgingly granted point after point to Obama.

Unable to mount a convincing case that the speech was a failure on rhetorical grounds, Safire clumsily dressed up an old Jim Crowism in the robes of the ancient Greeks to end his essay. Claiming that Obama’s historic appearance was hubristic seemed nothing more than a fancy way of accusing the first African-American presidential candidate of being “uppity.”

This was the worst kind of rhetorical trick: insinuation instead of plain writing. How depressing for such a thoughtful commentator on language to put his foot in his mouth from start to finish.

Americans have a word for such a shrill and unperceptive essay: garbage.

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