Criticism in an Age of Disproportion

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, July 5, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Criticism in an Age of Disproportion


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

In case you missed it--which is unlikely if you are reading this--President Obama gave an Oval Office speech last Tuesday on the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Though the remarks were hardly the stuff of legend--Lincoln's ghost need not fear that the Address to the Nation of June 15, 2010, will replace Gettysburg in the American imagination--neither were they as bad as many commentators decided they were.

The reviews from across the spectrum were, to put it kindly, miserable. One expects Sarah Palin, speaking on Fox, to be less than enthusiastic. On Tuesday night, however, even Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, a woman usually disposed to give this White House the benefit of the doubt, was underwhelmed. As she took over the MSNBC coverage from Keith Olbermann, who was also tough on Obama, she simply sighed deeply in disappointment with the president. The next night Maddow had the intellectual integrity to write the speech she wished Obama had given, an exercise that, in my view, elevates her from carper to critic in the best sense of the term. (Disclosure: Maddow and I are friendly and have friends and colleagues in common.) The most productive critics are those who observe the events of the public stage informed by history and ideology and perspective in the hope that one's observations may lead to a better reality for the audience.

Among the disapproving voices, however, Maddow's attempt to show rather than tell in her commentary was the exception that proved the rule. The rule was this: in the view of many, the president failed to give a great or even good speech, seemed unfocused and unspecific, and generally bombed. Still, I was struck by how disproportionate the hostile reaction seemed in relation to the address itself. (And seems still: our colleague George F. Will wallops the president on this subject in our pages this week.) With the perspective of a few days, I think that the reaction to the address tells us more about the observers than the observed, offering us a good example of the prevailing elevation of the stylistic over the substantive--and of the visceral over the reflective--in political conversation.

So it was not a good speech. So what? The next day Obama secured $20abillion in escrow from BP to begin to pay for the damages, and his approach on energy legislation mirrors his approach to health care, which, after being declared dead time and again, actually passed.

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