Saturday, February 13, 2010

#204 SOTU Footnote--Toastmasters 101

First let me say with, I assure you, more than just faint praise, I thank whatever gods may be that Barack Obama is our 44th President--because I have to think but a split second about the hellish alternative that might have come to pass. Except for one horrendous area of disagreement--THE MIDDLE-EAST WARS--I'm with him. His vision for America is just about right, and ever so fortuitously at the right time. Now if he could only get 'er done.

Here's a final criticism of his State of the Union, and by extension ALL of his prepared speeches. They've been praised, but I can't understand why. Sure, they're excellent on the printed page--kudos to his speechwriters and his editorial oversight. In fact, I have no doubt that much of the lexical content is his own--he's a published author of a pretty good book. But his delivery is bad. No, it's not the teleprompter thing. He's as good as Letterman at making us unaware of that (unlike the notorious "palm-reading" of Sarah Palin, lately in the news--who, incredibly, lampooned Obama's teleprompter-dependency as she cribbed off her own ink-stained hands!). No, it's his perfunctory head-wagging.

May seem trivial, but I'll explain why, in terms of audience perceptions and expectations, it's not. Obama's not quite as bad as the worst of the all-time head-waggers, Presidential-aspirant Michael Dukakis, who I'm convinced lost the election to Bush pere because of it. (Parolee Willie Horton and Dukakis' dress-up, tonka-toy-tank photo-op didn't help either, of course. Poor guy, he really had no chance, though, against popular RR's hand-picked lackey.) On the other hand, and here's the anomaly: Obama is GREAT, off-the-cuff. No sideways bobble-head problem at all in impromptu situations like pressers, town-halls, etc.

But take a look again at the photo in last post. He's caught in his right-side wag. His head will stop, if it hasn't already, stay fixed for several moments, and then make its swing to the exact opposite position on the left. Hold, swing right. Hold, repeat. No variation. No pause at any point in the horizontal arc, from one side to the other. It's a lazy way of appearing to include everybody in the speech-event, but in fact ends up excluding them. Who's he really looking at? Nobody. His eyes sweep over the heads of his audience, resting unfocused on one side, and then back to the other. The truly attentive among the audience will feel this uncomfortably, even on the unconscious level, whether in person or watching on TV.

I noticed this irritating habit way back when began his campaign. So it amazes me that someone on his team didn't sound the alert long ago. You don't have to be a second-level (ATM) Toastmaster like me (who has actually judged regional competitions)--to notice it. It's pretty elementary. Head and eye movement need to be varied--the unfocused bob and weave is okay, as long as the speaker engages individual members of the audience, at strategic intervals, eyeball to eyeball. "Wow! this speech is meant especially for ME," or my neighbor two rows down. What great eye-contact. Open and honest. And so on.

When lacking, this becomes the untoward perception, even (again) unconsciously: "This guy is afraid to look me in the eye." Or anybody else's. What's his problem? What's he hiding? This can only dull the expectations of a willing audience. Altogether it can only add to the distrust--justified or not--that many harbor toward our new President. Somebody please wise him up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#203 Two Presidents ... SOTU IV

Now there should be no question but in the smallest of minds that the current Congress has NOT been looking after, in our First President's phraseology, "the welfare of the country" in "a free, efficient, and equal" manner." They've done next to nothing on their own, really--TARP was a leftover--while everything needed to be done about Health Care and Afghanistan. (Obama can't, of course, blame Congress for the latter, because he had his way with them on that. But I can. Congressional Grafters pimp their wares wherever the money is. Big-Med, Big-MilitaryIndustrialComplex ... matters little.)

One of the jokes on SNL's "Weekend Update" segment the other night was at the expense of Congress--apropos of Fred Armiston's rendition of Obama's SOTU, which opened the show. It was set up ironically: "Anchor" Seth Meyers introduced a graphic of the House chamber, over which was to scroll a list of legislative accomplishments over the last year. Cut to clip ... two seconds of scroll, with 3 items on it ... cut back to Seth caught fiddling off-camera ... startled look to camera ... "unprepared" that the list was so short. Ha-ha ensues. The three were bailout renewal, Cash for Clunkers, and a cap on credit-card interest rates. Pretty much on-target satire. And I'm sure it got laughs across the country, because THE PEOPLE know. Typical big-laugh on the late-night circuit: "Severe cold, ice and snow have brought Washington to a virtual stand-still ... but how can you tell?" The people know.

So why didn't President Obama drag them out to the woodshed Wednesday-week, and give them all a good thrashing? Let George do it. (Our super-star General and first President was responsible for that popular expression, as a matter of fact.) Well, he certainly would have, you can have no doubt. But Obama just can't seem to get himself angry, not-to-mention communicate the THREAT of anger (and a hint of danger), which is by far the better.

There's little to complain about in the word-to-word content of Obama's State of the Union; it was reasoned, factual, as usual. But rhetorically and "histrionically" it was not good enough. Remember, unlike Washington's audience, strictly Congress, Obama's included the whole country. I dare say his approval ratings would have returned to their honeymoon levels had he given these bad boys the whippin' they deserved. The people have no love affair with Congress, to grossly understate. Now, couldn't he have done better than the following, in addressing the self-aggrandizing do-nothingness of Congress as a (w)hole?--
So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the AMERICAN PEOPLE hope--what they DESERVE--is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while THE PEOPLE who sent us here ...
You hear some of the old General's words, but without any righteous ANGER that they have pretty much FAILED at the job the people sent them there to do. It's time for much stronger words. Obama needed to bring the blame-game right down on top of their collective heads. Furthermore, Is this enough verbal drubbing for the pestiferous Republican vermin from Dante's 8th circle of Hell?--
If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town--a supermajority--then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to solve problems, not serve our ambitions.
Answer: he comes closer to tanning their hides, here. But wouldn't have been nice if he had ended the last sentence thus: "... not serve our ambitions, or line our pockets." Alas. And the President was waaay too easy on on the despicably wimpish Democrats, home to those venal Blue Dogs, greedy as Republicans. This is a mere slap on the wrist:
Democrats, I remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and THE PEOPLE expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.
As disappointing was Obama's failure to dump an appropriate load of sh-- er, opprobrium, on the proper culprits behind most of those "difficult challenges" he mentions: the Bush/Cheney administration. His vast audience beyond the walls of the House chamber has not forgotten, but Obama didn't do enough to pound it home, and, in so doing, let himself a lot off the hook. I think he wanted to do some justifiable Bush-bashing, but it didn't make it to the make-nice script, finally. Here's how I know. The following is a quote from the speech-text--all but his un-telepromtered ad lib (in brackets) interjected the night of the actual address:
One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. [AND ALL THIS BEFORE I GOT IN THE DOOR!] Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face ...
If you heard it, you would have noticed how very plaintive it was: "... beFORE I got IN the DOOooor ..." He's just too much of a nice guy, I guess, to wake the sleeping dogs ... to flog the dead horses. Or too cool.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

#202 Two Presidents ... First SOTU III

Unfortunately for President Obama, he could invoke Washington's "peace and plenty" phrase NOT at one single point in his State of the Union speech last week. He put a good face on it, though; he is nothing if not cool--too much so!. Love cool, but you gotta have a kind of Stonewall-Jackson-like "skeer" to go along with it. Not to be confused with the vague and overused "charisma"--this is the don't-mess-with-me look and bearing that says, "I can be dangerous." And that was George Washington all over, with sword and bulging biceps by his side--matched with a bulging intellect, and a hot temper when necessary. Obama's got all of that, surely, but lacks the sinister flash of fire from around the eye-sockets that tells you so. Well, sort of exactly like this cartoonist's rendition of what-might-have-been that I happened upon in the New Yorker this week.

Congressionally effective past Presidents like Washington had it, and you know what?--the best of them in the modern era always seem to get popularly initialized: TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ. But could these guys make Congress jump through the hoops, no matter its partisan make-up? Or else? You bet your Nellie Duff. Even the popular but non-initialized Ronald Reagan had it, despite his deceptively laid-back persona--he could flash that imperious "I'm-a-bad-ass-movie-star-and-you're-not" look when he had to. Not that I'm plumping for an Imperial President, but, my goodness, there's just no question that Obama coulda/shoulda done one hell of a lot more with last year's Congress than he did. Especially considering the Democrat's super-majority.

But Congress is a co-equal branch of our Constitutional government, and there's only so much a President can do, given the inherent and strict separation of powers. But Congress has proved powerless, and Obama's virtually "live" audience of the American people across the country already knew that before he even gave his speech. Ratings for Congress are about as low as serial rapists. WWGWD? Well, the very last words of Washington's first State of the Union gives the final nod to the PEOPLE, absent though they were from the President's immediate audience:
The WELFARE OF OUR COUNTRY is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a COOPERATION with you in the pleasing but arduous work of insuring TO OUR FELLOW CITIZENS the blessings which they have a RIGHT to expect from a free, EFFICIENT, and equal government.
Each and every Congressman of that assembled company would have sighed in relief at those closing phrases, because they knew that if they had NOT been "efficient"--NOT taken "measures of the last session,"cited earlier in the his speech, that "have been satisfactory to [their] constituents"--they might have expected the flat of the General's sabre. The famously non-partisan Washington would have given a good verbal-or-worse thrashing to both sides of the aisle (had they been in existence) if the welfare of the people had not been looked after, efficiently. But he didn't have to. The threat would have been enough. (more)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

#201 Two Presidents ... First SOTU II

When Barack Obama stepped to the lectern last week and addressed his "State of the Union" to the "... Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and FELLOW AMERICANS"--the President could be confident that he was speaking directly to the latter audience. Though not in the House Chamber, THE PEOPLE were actually PRESENT, moment to moment, via the electronic media, to hear the speech--no intermediary required. Not so for George Washington's "fellow Americans" on Jan. 8, 1790. Understandably, they were left out of his opening greetings, but in a quaint and curious way: "Fellow Citizens OF the Senate and House of Representatives," he began. He was , after all, under no Constitutional obligation to "from time to time give ... information" to anybody else. It was enough that the other citizens' REPRESENTATIVES were in attendance, even so be it that for everyone else the speech became immediately and necessarily second-hand news. To get the Word out to the people was left willy-nilly to the PRESS.

Pictured above is an example, "hot off the presses," two weeks after the fact. At least city-dwelling citizens, like those of Worcester, were able to get "late" news-reports in the early days of the Republick. But notice the masthead: Maffachufsetts SPY (love it)--as if undercover reporters, tabloid-wise, had to ferret out government goings-on, like any other juicy bit of news. It's no wonder that Freedom of the Press is in the very first Article of the Bill of Rights. For the people it was the only information game in town. This is ferociously understood and defiantly reflected in the SPY's epigraph: "The Liberty of the Prefs is effential to the Security of Freedom." (Enlarged view here.) To pound the point home, the motto is successively redacted in (count 'em) THREE "republican" languages: FRENCH, because the Revolution had happened only last July for these guys; GREEK (untransliterated--betraying the educational level, real or pretended, of the rag's readership), in deference to those pioneering Athenians; and LATIN, in remembrance of the glory-days of the Roman Republic, to whose historical example the American experiment was most indebted.

Not that our First President wasn't a man of the people. On the contrary--and speaking of the LIBERTIES afforded the people under this grand experiment, validated by the Constitution and the soon-to-be-passed Bill of Rights--Washington was concerned in his SOTU that the people be well-informed about the workings of their government. This leads me to the content of his speech--which proportionally, believe it or not, is most devoted to EDUCATION. What a precedent-setter, indeed, was this man! He was truly our first "Education President"--which almost without exception every one of his successors have tried or claimed to be. More fully about this below. (Full text w/o the funny 18C spelling here.)

Not surprisingly, the speech verily runneth over with optimism about the "peace and plenty" with which the new nation is blessed. No Afghanistan or Great Recession to get around. One small problem though, by implication only--here the President takes his Constitutional charge literally, first-off in the second sentence--that the State of the Union wasn't. Not quite yet, anyway, but soon to get there. My adopted state, North Carolina, had finally "acceded" to the new Constitution, Washington notes with satisfaction, it being the 12th and next-to-last state to do so. Why so late? Well, I'm proud of 'em--the NC delegates had held out for a sacred promise that a Bill of Rights was an absolute shoo-in to be amended to the Constitution. And it was, the next year. (Interesting sidebar: Rhode Island, the 13th and yet to come, was SO "independent"--it was the first to "declare" in 1776--that it took the threat of exorbitant taxation on its profitable exports--get this: as a "foreign" country--for it to become the very last to officially join the Union in 1792!)

Otherwise, things are going well, says the President, thanks in no small part to the good works that Congress accomplished in its last session. (Washington could wield a butter-knife as well as he could a sword.) But as long as Congress is kind of here, anyway, "among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention," he would like a little more money for the what's left of the standing army--some "tribes" could be threatening the frontiers, if pacification efforts fail. Additionally, our foreign ambassadors could be better paid, and some funds should be invested in agricultural technology--a subject close to George's Mt. Vernon heart. Oh, and weights and measures might well be standardized.

It's a relatively short speech so far, almost perfunctory--in a "from time to time" sort of way--but he saves the best and most for last: EDUCATION--
Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of SCIENCE and LITERATURE. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.
My hero. In the next long passage, which I'll quote, he explains--in the unfortunately dense, Ciceronion rhetoric of his time--WHY grass-roots learning is so important for this new experiment in Democracy to work:

To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways--by convincing those intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the ENLIGHTENED confidence of the PEOPLE, and by TEACHING THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES to KNOW and to VALUE their own RIGHTS; to discern and provide against INVASION of them; to distinguish between OPPRESSION and the necessary exercise of LAWFUL AUTHORITY; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of LIBERTY from that of LICENTIOUSNESS--cherishing the first, avoiding the last--and uniting a speedy but temperate VIGILANCE against ENCROACHMENTS, with an inviolable RESPECT to the LAWS.

Science and Literature can do this, by George. Put over-simply, only a knowledgeable and enlightened public will understand the inviolable ends, as well as the lawful limits, of Liberty. And so will fare well the Fate of the Union. Therefore, he concludes,
Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording AIDS to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a NATIONAL UNIVERSITY, or by any other expedients will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.
Way back in Washington's first State of the Union was thus the kernel-idea behind government-sponsored higher education--coming to fruition later in tax-free institutions, land-grant universities, G.I. Bills, Pell Grants, etc. What a guy. (more)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

#200 Two Presidents and Their First "State of the Union"

Nobody messed with George W. (no, not that one). A giant of a man for his day at 6' 2" and around 200 pounds , our first President stood more than half-a-foot above the average everybody else. Add to that Washington's legendary strength and agility, whether on horseback or the ballroom floor, and you've got the 18C equivalent of our Hunky Celeb, worthy of a Cosmo centerfold.

And on the field of battle? Fugedaboudit. He was well-nigh superhuman ... and absolutely front-line, horses-shot-from-under-him fearless. It helped that he could actually dodge bullets. But here's my favorite anecdote in regard to his instinctive courage, matched with amazing physical strength: It so happened on one occasion during the difficult days at Valley Forge that the General lost his (usually controlled but always to-be-wary-of) temper with two disgruntled and scuffling soldiers of about his size. He reportedly rushed into the fray, grabbed them separately in each of his reputedly oversize hands, levitated them both, and crashed their bodies together. Peace restored. Later, to make his point, he'd just have would-be mutineers shot.

Nobody messed with the Man from Mt. Vernon. You can imagine the figure he "cut" before Congress, especially if he chose to wear--and I like to think he did--his ceremonial sabre, pictured above at the ready. Do you think that one of the assembled Congressional company would have had the temerity to interject a "You lie!" into the proceedings?

Now, the official portrait guy, Gilbert Stuart, didn't capture his patron in paint while he was actually making THE very first "Presidential Address to Congress," as the "State of the Union" thing was called then--probably because it was so inconvenient for everybody. The "District of Columbia" just wasn't ready yet. The two houses of Congress were meeting temporarily in New York City, and the new President was anywhere and everywhere he needed to be. (His druthers: Mt. Vernon, of course.) But he must have felt it was important to fulfill in person THIS particular Constitutional mandate vis a' vis the Legislative branch and the new country's first CEO:
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. (Article II, Section 3)
And he did, on Jan. 8, 1790. For the very first time. Washington the great Precedent-Setter (e.g. two-terms and out with the exception of FDR) set for all time the WHEN--near the first of the year--and the HOW OFTEN--"from time to time" will mean annually--but NOT precisely the MANNER in which this "information" should be "given" to Congress. He and Adams presented it orally, but Jefferson was the Spoiler. He thought such a practice smacked of King-like ostentation--too much like those other Georges in full regalia addressing the opening of the British Parliament. So during our 3rd President's tenure the annual SOTU was delivered to Congress in written form only, and read into the record by a clerk. In so doing, he set a precedent of his own. Succeeding Presidents for over a century followed Jefferson's example, right up to Wilson and Harding, who revived oral presentation fitfully during their reigns.

But no surprise: the Great Populist FDR would be the one to re-set forever the Washingtonian example of getting in front of CONGRESS, and virtually the PEOPLE too, via radio, at least once-a-year. Now, since Truman and Television, the President is literally "live and in color" for the whole of America. Taken for granted.

However, it's all a rather radical departure from the old Constitutional imperative, which, when you look at it again, doesn't seem so imperative at all. The "from time to time" business. I think that's a notional by-product of the Framers' bed-rock bias of near-absolute Separation of Powers. For example, there's no mandate whatsoever for the Supreme Court justices to be in attendance, which is now seemingly de rigeur. Unlike Obama, President Washington wouldn't have had to put up with a snarky little Sam Alito shaking his head and lip-syncing, "Not true," during his speech. Good thing, too. There would have been an "appointment" involving Mr. Alito and the General in the Capitol cloak-room, afterwards. With or without his sabre. (more)