Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama and leadership during catastrophes

'This is my first objection to the "funeral of Diana" rhetoric we keep getting today, promptly from all affected politicians, whenever something bad happens and people get killed. The knowledge that their "touching remarks" are drafted by hard-bitten speechwriting staff, skilled in the professional emulation of human feeling, is something the public should bear constantly in mind.

But let us not only blame bureaucrats for the people who commission their work. President Barack Obama's display on Thursday made my point more clearly than it usually can be made, for he turned on a dime. He assumed the "presidential grieving tone" over the Fort Hood massacre, the moment after he'd just done an equally scripted segment of light joking banter for the benefit of the Tribal Nations Conference he was addressing. Millions in the television audience must have watched this incredibly cynical "quick flip." I wonder how many noticed it?'


I have to disagree with Mr Warren about his more general point, in a way which also sheds light on his specific gripe. Leaders making speeches to their people during time of national catastrophe and mourning is older than recorded history. Their job is NOT to convey personal grief, or even a facsimile of personal grief. It is to substantiate collective grief, and to speak on behalf of the whole tribe/nation the things which many are thinking and feeling. If successful, the speech will be remembered for how it particularised and shaped the effect of the catastrophe on the community. Not only is it an vital function, great men turn these occasions into moments of surpassing pathos and importance.

So, back to Obamas pathetic performance...

If Obama had planned in advance how to undermine the effectiveness of this particular type of public speech, the oration at a time of public grief, he could not have thought of a better way than the one he used. Affixed to the beginning of his oration were two minutes of after-dinner-speech banter. This completely destroyed the integrity of the dramatic moment that catastrophe orations require. Obama is not stupid. He must have realised that this was the effect his behaviour would have.

To me, this has nothing to do with 'personal sincerity'. It would be silly to pretend that the leader of a country of three hundred million would personally grieve when a particular person or persons died who he had never met or known. But leaders have a special responsibility, whether they are priests, who very commonly lead grieving, or politicians, who less frequently are called upon to do so. And if they don't instinctively understand this role, and fulfil it, they will store up a great well of public disgust and resentment.

That is more than evident in this case.

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