The Loneliness of the Long-Form Writer

It’s probably still a bit too early to conclude that the first presidential candidates’ debate had a genuinely seismic impact on the contest, but at some point the perception that it radically affected the race becomes an independent factor in itself. I remain skeptical that a significant percentage of the electorate will choose its voting preference based on who it thinks is winning, but obviously there’s an effect on “base enthusiasm” (as is indicated by the changing party ID numbers in various polls showing Romney making major gains), and there may well have been swing voters who found Romney’s performance reassuring, mendacious as it was.

In any event, the dynamics of the debate and of media coverage of the event remain a hot topic for the moment, and Richard Just (a former boss/colleague of mine at The New Republic) offers an original take at the Daily Beast today. Obama’s entire approach to communications, he suggests, made him singularly vulnerable both to a debate with an aggressive Mitt Romney, and to the insta-reaction mentality of contemporary political media:

Before he became a politician, Obama was a long-form writer. And during his political career, he has specialized in writing and delivering elegantly constructed, thoughtful speeches.

Not surprisingly, like many people who gravitate toward long-form writing, Obama’s strengths don’t translate very well to the world of debate, or at least the kind of debate that our new journalistic culture of instantaneous opinion values so highly. For one thing, when he speaks extemporaneously, he pauses frequently and often says “uh.” That sound drove journalists nuts during the debate last week; but where many of my colleagues heard lack of preparation, I heard the tic of a writer wanting to self-edit, trying to buy himself the time to carefully measure his words.

It’s all but been obliterated by conservative media treatment of Obama as a dunce when un-teleprompted, but Just is right: in 2008, many of Obama’s speeches seemed like throwbacks to a much earlier era when oratory was aimed not at media filters seeking sound-bites or even “ledes,” but at live audiences who consumed speeches from beginning to end. Upon learning that millions of people were downloading the entire Obama “race speech” on YouTube in March of 2008, I even suggested that Obama might be showing how new social media could usher in a new era of coherent, long-form political speeches.

But Just sees social media cutting in the opposite direction, placing Obama at a decided disadvantage:

The give-and-take of debate has always had a cherished place in journalism, whether on op-ed pages or in opinion magazines. But with the rise of blogging and especially Twitter, journalists are spending more and more time immersed in the world of retorts and clever one-liners than ever before.

And moreover, he thinks Obama’s inability to stare into the camera and utter confident lies is an even bigger handicap:

For one thing, when he speaks extemporaneously, he pauses frequently and often says “uh.” That sound drove journalists nuts during the debate last week; but where many of my colleagues heard lack of preparation, I heard the tic of a writer wanting to self-edit, trying to buy himself the time to carefully measure his words.

There’s also, as Frank Bruni pointed out in an excellent New York Times column this weekend, Obama’s tendency to acknowledge self-doubt and nuance—another tic of the long-form writer. “Four years ago,” Obama remarked during his closing statement last Wednesday, “I said that I am not a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president. That’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept.” Such statements are anathema to successful debate. But to my ears, it was an elegant and genuine assertion of presidential humility.

The frequently-repeated Democratic lament that Barack Obama could really use some communications tips from Bill Clinton reflects how rare it is to find a politician, much less a president, who can combine “zingers” with a coherent narrative in a context where speed and confidence are taken to convey conviction and vision. Some debate commenters credited Romney with “coherence” and “vision.” That’s only the case if you believe a consistent pattern of self-misrepresentations are “coherent,” and that “I’m not who you think I am” represents a “vision.”

Still, at some point between now and November 6, Barack Obama needs to find some way to draw on (and remind people of) his strengths as a political communicator. It’s not just a matter of giving a “big speech”–after all, his convention speech, which sounded like it was composed by a committee, was underwhelming, too. He needs a big speech on a topic that matters to him, and that shows the contrasts between his interest in making government an instrument for meeting big national challenges and Romney’s interest in saying exactly whatever the political moment requires, all in the service of privilege and ideology. If he can do that, maybe even the Twitterverse will notice.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.