Jeremy McCarter on the versatility of Obama's gift:
Someone should invite Barack Obama to give an explanation of particle physics while wrestling a gator. Short of that, I don't what could make him give a flat or faltering speech. The oratorical challenges that life has thrown at him over the last four years—the 2004 convention, the race speech, Berlin—have given chance after chance to flop, but the man seems incapable of doing so. Thursday night's challenge was one of the tallest: bringing the Democratic National Convention to a crescendo without providing fodder for those who think him a preening, grandiose celebrity. So he took his inside voice with him to the cavernous Invesco Field, and used it to deliver what might be the most intimate talk ever offered to a crowd of 80,000.McCarter's essay (which goes on to some sharp criticism of the convention as a whole) is a Newsweek "web exclusive"; it clearly belongs in the magazine.
Obama described the speech as "workmanlike." That's true, in the sense that it didn't have the rhetorical flights of some of his previous talks. But it also implies a level of strain, of visible effort, nowhere in evidence. (It sounded workmanlike only in the way that Tiger Woods going eight under for the round is workmanlike.)
He needed all his gifts for this one, beginning with the agile, dynamic voice—an instrument that lets him, like a singer with a four-octave range, hit notes and make tonal shifts unavailable to the rest of us. "What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me," he said, using a pianissimo note to draw people closer, before booming: "It's about you." There's also the sheer quality of the writing, not just the arc and the rhythmic drive of the overall speech, but little flecks of language, as when he described the promise of a democracy "where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort." Grace, the unexpectedly delicate word, recasts the whole sentence, makes you listen anew.