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October 10, 2012 12:20 PM The Loneliness of the Long-Form Writer

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • stevio on October 10, 2012 12:33 PM:

    He is who he is. Period.

    If this country wants to be governed by a liar who speaks well in debates, they deserve it. Remember, he was trailing badly when the issues were being discussed and the differences between the two parties were at the fore. If having one win a debate by lying
    quifies as the reason to switch your vote, then this country and it's media are in a nauseating time and place.

    Belgium. I'm thinking Belgium...

  • stormskies on October 10, 2012 12:34 PM:

    Dan Millbank said to Howard Kurtz that doing the debate all the 'journalists' were twitting back and forth .. and from the beginning the consensus was buffoon Romney was 'winning' .. thus they needed to keep reinforcing this interpretation among themselves in order to feel secure within the pack.

    This then precluded them from actually listening .. and thus all the lies that were issued by pathological liar Romney ...

    And this is what passes for our corporate media ... and the enabling of the corporate choice .. Romney

  • JackD on October 10, 2012 12:36 PM:

    No, the twitter verse will not notice. For better or worse Obama is going to have to acknowledge and adjust to the reality of what passes for news coverage and gullibility of the public in its receptiveness to sales pitches. Good Lord, when you get Bill Clinton observing a "return" to the "moderate Mitt", you have to simply accept that that's the way it is and try to compete in that world. Calling "bullshit" as it arises would probably be a good start.

  • jjm on October 10, 2012 12:42 PM:

    Is it a Mormon thing, this absolute commitment to being two-faced? I'd like to know. Or is it just Mitt? With such a terrible personality flaw, can you begin to imagine what his dealing with other nations might be like? Who would EVER trust his word?

    By the way I see Obama 'hanging on' as Steve Benen puts it to a mere six point lead in NH and a four point lead in Ohio.

  • T2 on October 10, 2012 12:50 PM:

    @ Stevio - well said. @jjm, yes it is a Mormon thing - they are allowed to lie to further their Church...google Mormon, lies.

    But the premise that Obama's ability as a long form writer hinders his debate skills has some merit. The halting speech pattern is indicative of searching for just the right word to convey his thought, the pauses (uh) give him time to think of the correct response. In his speeches, those actions have already been done, and he delivers the speech much more fluidly, however there is still some pauses and halting in them also, just listen to one of them. Remember, it is fact that Romney rehearsed and memorized his performance for weeks and weeks...right down to the gestures..it was a performance, and if you add on top of that the ability to disregard the truth at will......hello New Mitt.

  • Ron Byers on October 10, 2012 12:54 PM:

    Once upon a time publications employed editorial writers who spent time thinking about what to write. Today the media doesn't employ editorial writers, it employs blog comment writers, like Ed, Steve Benen or Kevin Drumm. Running a blog requires meeting 8-14 deadlines a day. The physical act of writing doesn't leave any serious time for thinking. As a result any random dance across the blogosphere will produce a lot of similar comments on the same basic topic as blog writers read one another and try to figure out ways to express the same basic idea. The nature of blog writing has generated a sort of group think that takes us all down the same path. Some blog writers, like Ed, Steve and Kevin, are better than others, but they all the news and each other. Finding a truly original take on a subject is rare. That is really what happened last week. If the liberal bloggers and television instapundits had started off with the idea that Obama looked very tired and didn't seem himself, the herd would have jumped down that rathole and we would all be concerned about the President's health. If the camera work had been slightly different and we hadn't been treated with a downward looking Obama during much of the time Romney talked we wouldn't have thought that at points Obama looked like a whipped puppy. If the moderator had butted heads with Romney once or twice that would be talking about how rude Romney was. Instead we are treated with Romney's great victory and the idea that he cleaned Obama's clock.

    We are playing with a lot of new media tools, but not many of us really understand how those tools work.

  • Ron Byers on October 10, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Damn I shouldn't try to write long form thoughts in a blog comment.

    You might respond with "why don't you write your own blog." To which I would reply "been there, done that and hitting those deadlines damn near killed me."

  • Gandalf on October 10, 2012 1:01 PM:

    Ron don't worry a populace taht vacillates based on a shallow lying performance artist can and will swing just as easily when Obama does something sterling or an external bauble cathes their eyes.

  • exlibra on October 10, 2012 1:07 PM:

    stevio, @12:33 PM

    Not Belgium; they have two languages to cope with. Netherlands is much better: only one language (which is almost the same as one of the two in Belgium), and you can always pop in "next door" (Belgium) for the chocolate. And almost everyone speaks pretty decent English in Holland, which isn't always true of Belgium (I've travelled in both countries and had lace teachers from both countries, too)

  • c u n d gulag on October 10, 2012 1:10 PM:

    Thinking takes time.

    Lying, particularly for someone practiced at the art like Mitt, is instinctive.

    I hate the fact that so many people in this country don't appreciate the careful crafting of words, and instead, wants brevity and punch and zingers.

    I want a real President, and not a Vaudeville clown.

  • g on October 10, 2012 1:28 PM:

    It really is a new paradigm, and I don't know how one can combat it without abandoning all moral principle.

    Romney from the beginning has 1) aped conservatism and disavowed his previous record, 2) fabricated and touted policies that are total unrealistic fantasies, 3) lied about his opponents positions, 4) claimed untruths as facts, 5) refused to provide factual evidence of his past, 6)called the President a liar, and finally, 7)versed his own position in a cynical tack to the center.

    His supporters, rather than decrying his dishonesty, praise it as "good politics." I can't even begin to understand what they think of him - do they think he is a conservative falsely pretending to be moderate, or a moderate falsely pretending to be conservative?

    Or is it simply what Grover Norquist claimed all along - all they need is a warm body that can hold a pen, because they'll write all the legislation; he's just there to sign it.

  • Hannah on October 10, 2012 1:37 PM:

    I totally agree with this analysis of the president's debate performance, in fact, commented last week that he needed to begin each response with bullet points either rebutting Romney's lies and/or laying out his positions. Only after that should he go into detail. He's so used to giving speeches that the shorter time throws off his rhythm.

  • TCinLA on October 10, 2012 1:51 PM:

    As a professional "long form writer" myself, I'd advise the president that there are many times when "just go with it" really does work. Too often, long-form writing in fact leads to "over-thinking" the problem, as I have often discovered when I thought I was stuck with some point or another.

    If he doesn't "bring it" this next time, he's done. He can worry about editing it for excellence and eloquence after next January 20.

  • mb on October 10, 2012 2:05 PM:

    RE: Belgium: Hotel Rwanda kind of soured me on Belgium.

  • Jameson Burt on October 10, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Fabricated facts produce fluid talks
    I enjoy my talks with various pairs of white-shirted proselyting Mormons on the street, as Bishop Romney would have been, because few people respond with more than a cursory "hello." Doing this for two years, Mormons get good speaking experience and a toughness to criticism.

    They consistently organize their presentation, and add examples and quotes, to overwhelm their baffled listeners. Yet, their fabricated facts, often supported by fact-fabricated books, get so concentrated that they represent specters in a world of actually observable smells, sights, and relationships.

    Fabricating facts and an appearance, produces an exquisite self-consistent speech founded on theatrics not durable substance.

  • Mimikatz on October 10, 2012 2:08 PM:

    Mitt absolutely epitomizes the notion that the end justifies the means. This may be a Mormon thing, a trait of a successful business consultant and tax dodger, the tic of a sociopath or all of the above. He seems to have some goals (make money, promote the Mormon faith, gain power) but it is hard to see that he has any principles as most people understand the term. Anything goes in the service of his goals, absolutely anything. He doesn't even have the saving grace of having any loyalty to his party or ideology, since he has always been an outsider and has only held office for 4 years, and executive office at that.

    If he were to win I think the Congressional GOPsters would run circles around him, he would find the federal gov't to be incomprehensibly complex and he would be as outclassed in foreign policy as GWBush. And then add in the looming catastrophes of unaddressed climate change. A recipe for national disaster. Which is why I truly, truly hope he loses. If he wins, it will be worse than Bush and the gods know we barely survived that.

    They say that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve, but I can't believe Americans, who I believe are for the most part fundamentally goodhearted, deserve to go through all these things twice.

  • AngryOldVet on October 10, 2012 2:33 PM:

    For the remaining two debates, The Obomination had better get real good at 'short form answers' or be willing to play some real hardball and get in the attack mode.

    Trying to provide reasonable and reality based answers to an outright liar is a losing game. I suggest the attack mode. Questions that I would like for him to pose to the Mormon elder include:

    1) I have been informed that you have had many legally dubious offshore/foreign accounts for your money and have been informed that you took 'tax amnesty' in 2009. Are these true? The American voters deserve to know if they are voting for a tax cheat. Why will you not release at least 7 years of tax returns?

    2) You have had ownership in a medical waste disposal corporation that profited from the disposal of fetuses from abortion clinics. Why?

    3) You have had ownership in Chinese corporations that have promoted themselves as 'low wage' and have been shown to have had almost 'slave labor working conditions'. Were you a participant in their presentation to Bain Capital when they bragged about how they treated their workers? Do you believe that profit is more important than a safe workplace?

  • John B. on October 10, 2012 3:50 PM:

    So, are you saying that Obama is another Adlai Stevenson?

  • Doug on October 10, 2012 6:49 PM:

    John B., I'd say more like Woodrow Wilson who, I understand, could produce great speeches as long as he wrote them out beforehand.

  • castanea on October 10, 2012 10:16 PM:

    Somewhere in the Texas hill country, Karl Rove is dining on quail and laughing with approval at the way spineless liberals have turned on the guy who is the most progressive president that could have been elected in 2008, and who has done a remarkable job not only because he has battled the overt racism and obstructionism of the minority party and the corporate media, but also others of his mindset who are miffed that he has not singlehandedly reversed the 32-year rightward drift in American politics in just under four years.

    I'm sure even rightwing strategists are amazed at the speed with which so many emoprog types are willing to swallow Republican/media talking points that have claim Obama is on the ropes because of a suboptimal performance in a debate.

    Some people on the left think that Romney is now the favorite because of the results of the debate? It just goes to show how soft-headed and gutless some leftists can be.

    My god, how the stupid burns.

  • emjayay on October 10, 2012 11:15 PM:

    Obama normally throws in a long uhhhh every few sentences. In the debate he threw in a shorter uhh way more often. He's been talking in public for years. Me too. Here's one easy thing I learned early on: Don't say uhhh. I've always wondered why no one ever told him, or watching his many recorded public speaking examples, he never figured it out. If you feel like saying uhhh, don't. Leave some dead air if you have to. This is simply public speaking incompetence.

    All this long form speaking and writing stuff ignores one big thing: it was (sort of) a debate. How do you win a debate? Employ debate techniques. Ask anyone in a high school debate club. WTF happened? How does some high school social studies teacher make a better debate coach and get better results with teenagers than a million dollars worth of the best experts available with an adult lawyer who's been immersed in the issues for three years?

  • RimKitty on October 11, 2012 2:25 PM:

    Lying sack of Mitt has stretched the limits of truth beyond all ethical bounds.

    So, let's get to the heart of it. Say you're a soldier and your life depends on the man fighting beside you. Would you want that guy to be Mitt Romney? 'Nuff said.

  • RimKitty on October 11, 2012 2:41 PM:

    Sorry, the Gremlins got me posting on the wrong article. Forgive me;-)

    But, while I'm here. The question is, would you rather have a thinking President, who can actually string together a series of thoughts, along with the occasional "um" or a snake oil salesman like Romney, The Lizard of Oz.