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lived through three world wars

Ann Nixon Cooper: lived through three world wars

Barack Obama has, with justification, earned a reputation as a talented and inspirational speaker.  Furthermore, by all reports, he actually writes most of his own speeches, which makes him almost unique among recent presidential candidates (Adlai Stevenson, another Illinoisan, also wrote a lot of his own stuff — look where that got him).  Talented and inspirational speakers, however, can sometimes get carried away with their rhetorical brilliance and the sheer enormity of their own wonderfulness, so much so that they eschew more mundane matters such as fact-checking and editing.

That has been an irritating problem with Obama during the campaign, no more so than in the final week.  At his victory fest at Grant Park last night, Obama said:

But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

We’ve been remaking the nation for 221 years?  It’s true that 1787 was an important year in the history of the United States — that’s when the constitutional convention met in Philadelphia.  But the nation was already eleven years old at the time (remember all of that bicentennial business back in 1976?).  What were we doing for those eleven years?  Kicking back and relaxing?  Was there a moratorium on remaking the nation “block by block, brick by brick” until James Madison and his pals staged their genteel coup d’etat?  One wonders. Likewise, Obama stated:

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight’s about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

Lots of things wrong with this.  Cooper was born in 1902.  That’s about two generations removed from slavery, if we reckon generations as lasting twenty years.  Furthermore, although there weren’t any airplanes flying around in 1902, there were cars on the road — maybe not on the road that led past the Cooper household, but they were out there.  And there was probably another reason why someone like Cooper couldn’t vote in 1902 that Obama failed to consider: she was a newborn infant, which would have disqualified her and anyone like her even if she hadn’t been black and a female.

Of course, much of this criticism can be dismissed as pedantic quibbling, the rhetorical equivalent of being a “grammar Nazi,” but this sort of casual disregard for basic editing can, at times, lead to some head-scratching moments, such as when Obama praised his late grandmother in a speech in Charlotte, NC:

I want everyone to know though a little bit about her,” he continued. “Her name was Madelyn Dunham and she was born in Kansas in a small town in 1922. Which means that she lived through the Great Depression, she lived through two World Wars. She watched her husband go off to war while she looked after her baby and worked on a bomber assembly line.

She lived through two world wars?  I know World War II is one of them, but what’s the other one?  The Cold War?  That alien invasion in Independence Day?  Wrestlemania IV?  It can’t be the First World War; that ended in 1918, four years before Dunham was born.

This is not one of those problems with careless impromptu confabulations, such as Joe Biden’s stunningly dumb remark that Franklin Roosevelt went on television and calmed a nation panicked by the 1929 stock market crash.  The speech Obama gave at Grant Park was certainly scripted, and the one he gave in Charlotte probably was as well.  These weren’t off-the-cuff remarks.  He had time to work on those speeches, so he presumably had time to make sure that he got his facts straight.

Likewise, it’s not that a basic adherence to readily ascertainable facts would somehow get in the way of Obama’s soaring rhetoric.  He could just as easily have said that his grandmother had lived through one world war, or that Ann Nixon Cooper was born less than forty years after the end of slavery.  Indeed, as long as he was quoting Lincoln, he could have said that Cooper was born about one score and seventeen years after the passage of the thirteenth amendment.  Truly, there are many ways of reconciling an inspirational message with factual accuracy.

Obama now has over two months to work on his inaugural address.  It is bound to be a stirring, passionate appeal to the American people, a speech that befits Obama’s reputation for transcendent oratory.  Let’s just hope that a competent editor gets a chance to go over it with a blue pencil before January 20.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. FBR  •  Nov 6, 2008 @12:24 pm

    Joe, do you honestly think Obama writes most of his speeches?
    I’ve worked during two different period of my life -one finished a relatively short time ago- as a political speech writer, and I tell you, there is no way a politician -no matter how articulate- can go into a campaign and still manage to write most of his speeches.
    He may give his team a theme, a few leit-motivs, review the draft and add some things while on the go, and make the speech more powerful or touching, but there is no time to do more. And that’s supposing he’s really paying attention.
    Speech writing is an absorbing job. And human errors happen all the time. Sometimes they slip after several revisions… like they do in books, newspapers and magazines.
    The ones you point out are particularly bad.
    The WWI one was either a hasty aggregate by Obama himself, or a collective blunder.
    The other one was a typical speechwriter mistake. “When the Constitutional Convention meet? 1787? OK, that makes 221 years”. Damn dates.

    … or perhaps Obama was discounting the Bush years (Senior and Junior) of deconstruction.

  2. bala mariyappan  •  May 9, 2009 @9:24 am

    pls give me amazing resume

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