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Barack Obama and the Power of Language

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Words matter.

More than any candidate in recent memory, Barack Obama has used the power of rhetoric to ascend to political prominence, prompting his opponents to discount the importance of oratory.

The power of political rhetoric has its limits. As I point out in today's Politico, no one knew that better than the politician to whom Barack Obama is so often compared -- a young senator whose words inspired a nation and a generation.

But Kennedy also appreciated the limits of rhetoric. He liked to quote from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," in which Owen Glendower boasts that he can "call spirits from the vasty deep" and Hotspur replies that he can, too, and "so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?" Anyone can speak well, in other words, but do the words lead to deeds?

Those spirits have come from the vasty deep at Obama's summons, but having established their power, Obama is now in danger of their turning on him. The toxic language of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and friend, threatens to blot out the unifying beacon that the Illinois senator has been striving to become.

Obama will shortly step to the podium to deliver a speech that his campaign aides have been careful to note he worked late into the night writing himself. (This is almost certainly true as far as it goes -- but to say that he was writing it himself does not mean that he did not have the aides of his three talented speechwriters. As I note in my forthcoming book, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, the last successful presidential candidate who wrote his own speeches was -- wait for it -- Bill Clinton.)

This morning's speech is the critical moment of the Democratic campaign: Failure could trigger the kind of political collapse for which the Clintonites have been waiting and about which they have been warning. Can Obama's words overcome and defuse Wright's? Stay tuned.

Update: For more on the stakes facing Obama this morning, see my thoughts at Robert Emmet.

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