“Lose the Idiot Boards!”

During the last Presidential race, I remember watching with wonder as oceans of ink were spilled over the extraordinary oratory powers of (eventual) President Barack Obama.

Somehow, despite the repeated insistence of media commentators, political analysts, and any number of acquaintances, I could never get around the “tennis match” aura that his heavily-Teleprompted speeches conveyed. Perhaps it was the result of my childish (but ever-present) desire to be contrary, or of the inordinate weight I tend to give to the visual aspects of a presentation. But whatever the cause, I never felt like he was “connecting,” only that he was reading. And I don’t like being read to by a “great orator,” no matter how common such behavior may be in the political realm.

Over the past several years, a small amount of the ink political pundits failed to spill in the pre-election days has been used in less flattering accounts of the President’s orations — from the preposterous to the bemused, and nearly everywhere in between. Now, at long last, former Vice President Walter Mondale weighs in, and despite the “Johnny Come Lately” vibe, he hits the nail right on the head:

…the 82 year-old Mondale said the president “has got to connect with the American people.” When CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked why Obama has not shown more empathy, Mondale answered, “I’ve seen places where he’s done it. The Milwaukee speech, I thought was terrific. I think some of these backyard events are terrific. But I think he — he’s very bright — as a matter of fact, brilliant. And I think he tends to — and he uses these idiot boards to read speeches on television and I think he loses the connection that he needs emotionally with American voters.”

To be perfectly clear, this is a stylistic objection, not a substantive one. I have opinions on the President’s substance as well, but that’s something for another day (and a much longer blog post). But despite the “Style over Substance” nature, I think it’s an important (and enlightening) criticism, as well as one that can give us considerable insight into the man.

When I’m listening to someone, I like to feel like they’re speaking directly to me. I don’t want them to talk past me, or around me, or down their nose at me, or at some clear glass panel somewhere between their podium and the ceiling. A truly great orator makes that connection with listeners his top priority,  because he understands that if he’s not talking “to” someone, there may as well not be any “someone” there at all.

Have we really changed what we expect from the word “oration” so much that we’re willing to settle for “organized, audible, and flub-free,” rather than “moving?” Maybe it’s time for us to start asking WWCT, once again. (Cicero, that is.)


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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