FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009

Listening Between the Lines: How the Acceptance Speeches Matter More than the Debates

October 15,  2008                                            Volume 1 Issue 2
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Nathan Baxter

In the tumultuous journey we call presidential campaigning, two key events shape the frenzy on the campaign trail: the nominating conventions and the televised debates.  Both bring into focus the tenor, tactics, and themes of the campaigns.  We've seen the conventions, and today, Oct. 15, marks the last debate.  And though we might still ponder the stumping, ads, blogging, and cornucopia of matters political, I can't help but wonder if we've learned all we need to know from the convention speeches.

Granted, we're prone to suspicion about "Big Speeches" from politicians.  Yet the acceptance rhetoric brings a campaign into fresh and revealing-if temporary-focus.  In these speeches, the candidates must negotiate a host of competing goals: unite their party, sketch their platform, (re)introduce themselves to the nation, appeal to undecided voters, launch their formally endorsed campaigns, distinguish themselves from their opponents, and run the gauntlet of the professional prognosticators. 

We can too easily forget these enormous pressures on such speeches as we're swept up in the fact-checking of partisans and pundits. But if we're to make responsible judgments on Nov. 4th, it's helpful to listen between the lines, to consider how, for high-stakes speeches like these, the particular claims are less revealing than the techniques the candidates used to try to make those claims hold together.  It's not that details don't matter and that fact-checking is unimportant.  It's that patterns of meaning-making-and the language that reflects them-provide insight into the candidate's vision of leadership and priorities in policy-making.

So how each candidate forged coherence among complex and competing concerns in his acceptance speech revealed something-clearly not everything-about how he might navigate the pressures of the presidency. 

Senator John McCain articulated his persona in fighting terms.  Maverick? Yes.  Reformer?  That too, but all in relation to the Fighter, who survived torture, endured legislative and electoral battles, and pledged to fight for America's future.  The Fighter's vision starts in the decadent halls of Washington, sweeps through the theater of domestic conflicts, and finishes poised in readiness to face international foes.  In each scene, the threats call forth distinctive aspects of the Fighter, and through his eyes, we're given a vision of our country, our heritage, and the future into which he'll lead us.

Through the Fighter's eyes, we're invited to see ourselves as honor-bound servants of freedom, enlisting in the Fighter's cause-in America's cause: "Fight for what's right for our country.  Fight for the ideals and character of a free people . . . Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America."  

Senator Barak Obama articulated his persona in terms of promise.  Hope? Yes. Change? To be sure. But holding it all together were the strands of promise this Visionary has heard over the years.  Implicitly resonant with the less-remembered but more dominant themes of Martin Luther King's "Dream" speech of forty-five years earlier ("promissory note," "now is the time," the American "creed" of equal opportunity), the Visionary sees an America making good on the promises embedded in the founding documents and formative moments of America's traditions. 

Now is the time, the Visionary says, to reconcile tensions between individual freedoms and mutual obligations, to meet global threats through partnerships, threats not just military-"terrorism and nuclear proliferation"-but also humanitarian and ecological-"poverty and genocide, climate change and disease." Now is the time to "restore our moral standing so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future."

Where the Fighter sees threats to principles that must be fought for, the Visionary sees aspects of promise that must be fulfilled.  Both envision tax cuts, more efficient bureaucracy, reforms suited to the 21st century, and a call to sacrifice and duty. But the Fighting structure calls for battle, which involves attacks, defenses, alliances.  It calls for dedication not desertion, for loyalty not treachery, for boldness not caution. The Visionary structure calls for purpose, which involves hope, common ground, faithfulness. It calls for compromise not cynicism, for strength not betrayal, for unity not division.

Of course both are fraught with dangers and weaknesses. But you won't hear that in a speech.

Dr. Nathan Baxter is an assistant professor of communication arts, teaching civil discourse, persuasion and speech courses. He and his wife, Tiffany, live with their two children in Beverly, MA.