Monday, July 07, 2008

Obama Speech at Stadium

Obama Acceptance Speech at Stadium Sets Bar a Mile High

When the Democrats scheduled the finale of their 2008 national convention for Aug. 28, it's unlikely anyone anticipated the historic synchronicity of dates. Sure, Barack Obama had established himself as a rising star and the orator of his generation, with his 2004 convention speech. But even Obama himself was saying that 2008 might be a little early for a presidential run.

However, "the urgency of now" took precedence, and the 2008 convention is now Obama's. In a parallel we'll hear over and over and over again, the first African-American presidential nominee will give his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Talk about setting expectations high.

Now Obama has raised the bar even higher, by moving the speech from the Pepsi Center arena in Denver, where the first three nights of the convention will take place, to Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, the 75,000-seat home of the Denver Broncos.

The last major party convention speech at a stadium was JFK in 1960, which is certain to invoke memories of Kennedy's eloquence and famous inaugural address.

One of the rules of political advance work is, always book the room one size too small. The folks on the ground will grouch, but they're props for the cameras, and the cameras will show a jam-packed room. You hope, anyway.

That part won't be hard for Obama to pull off. He already drew crowds in the upper tens of thousands late in the primaries. (A far cry from the high school gyms where we Iowans saw Obama back in December.) The harder part will be the speech itself.

Modern national conventions suffer from a surplus of coverage in a vacuum of big news. Used to be, the presidential nomination itself was in question. But the last multiple presidential ballot was in 1952, and the last time the nomination was seriously in question was the Ford-Reagan battle of 1976. (The power of incumbency: It seems hard to believe that Gerald Ford was the only person who ever beat Ronald Reagan in an election.)

Still, there was the traditional Thursday morning roll-out of the running mate to look forward to. But even that started getting earlier, and the last running mate named during convention week was Dan Quayle in 1988.

Sure, there will be the unity talk, but the Clintons are consummate professionals and will nail the delivery with no surprises. The media echo chamber will quickly turn to the Obama speech, and with 24 hours of cable news to fill, the Martin Luther King parallel will rotate around every hour or so.

The typical American can name three or four political speeches. The Gettysburg Address. FDR and JFK's inaugurals. And, the only one by a non-president, I Have A Dream. The parallels of date and race and eloquence are too many for anyone, even Obama, to ignore. He will almost certainly reference it in his speech -- which just moves the bar up another notch.

Obama has a lot of bases to touch with his address. Party unity. The laundry list of issues Democrats expect to have mentioned, lest some constituency group be left out. Biography and persona, no doubt with some definitive reference to Jesus Christ as part of the ongoing effort to debunk the Muslim rumor. The big picture of theme and vision. History adds one more chunk of speech. And he has to do all this within the public's shrinking attention span.

A century or two ago, political oratory was a major form of public entertainment. Politicians earned a second income on the Chatauqua circuit and bloviated for hours. Indeed, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was not initially recognized for its timeless, concise eloquence. The contemporary reaction was one of shock at its brevity. The two minute address had been preceded by a two-hour introduction, which was standard for the era.

In the modern era, set speeches like inaugurations, State of the Unions, and nominations don't go much more than 30 to 45 minutes, but they have to hold the attention of a public that gets itchy fingers on the iPod shuffle button during a four-minute song.

In addition to the logistics of setting up, in effect, two convention sites, there's another risk: The stadium is open air with no dome. Rain could cut into the crowd.

Obama, and other convention speakers, should also take note of the altitude. From the corpulent Roman senator in his toga to William Jennings Bryan and the Cross of Gold, oratory depended on being able to physically fill the hall with your voice like an opera singer. That limitation on public life has faded with electronic amplification, but a 45-minute speech is still a physical effort, and a stressful thing even to professional politicians long accustomed to speeches. Lungs not acclimated to Denver's thinner air could be at risk. My bet is at least one minor speaker will have an altitude-related moment of wooziness.

Obama himself should be OK, though he should make sure to keep up with his basketball workouts. And he is at his best in front of large, adoring crowds. The Obama campaign must be feeling confident to make this stadium move. But he has to be careful not to let the hype get out of hand. Otherwise, anything short of "Ask not what your country can do for you" or "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" will be a letdown.

With his nomination, Barack Obama has already earned a place in the history books. But that place could still be a mere footnote like Al Smith's. Like the Muslim rumors of today, Smith faced religion-based lies as the first Catholic presidential nominee. The big rumor was that there would be a "secret tunnel to the Vatican," through which Smith would supposedly take orders from the Pope. It was another 32 years before John F. Kennedy turned Al Smith's footnote in history into his own full chapter as the first Catholic president.

If Obama pulls off the speech, and the election, our grandchildren will be watching it on whatever wide screen or hologram or brain chip they're using by then, and the Obama nomination speech will be an iconic moment for the ages.

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