Presidential oratory: O,T and M

Random thoughts on the strange diversity of oratorical appeal

If you’re from the good ol’ US of A, no prizes for guessing who O and T are. Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last year and a bit (and if so, congratulations, you lucky sod!).

I’m not from the oldest and richest democracy in the world, but I am from the largest, messiest and, arguably, most successful democracy in the world, especially if you measure success by the odds you need to overcome to get from colonialist rule to prolonged self-rule, bypassing all the messy bits like military rule, dictatorship, coups and so on.

In this age of YouTube-ry even a political atheist like me can’t help but be bombarded by speech excerpt after speech excerpt from across the globe. Skipping those in languages I don’t understand, the three that stood out in recent times for me are Presidents Obama and Trump and Prime Minister Modi.

I watched Obama’s first inaugural (as did most of the English speaking world) and various excerpts of his interactions with the press and the media over the years. I watched Trump’s first inaugural (any bets on there being a second?) and his first press conference. And of course, I’ve watched a number of Modi’s televised speeches. I can’t claim that any of this is my preferred viewing over say, Santa Clarita Diet or The Walking Dead, but a self-aware individual should not live by zombies alone.

If Obama is looking to keep himself busy in his post-POTUS life, he should try his hand at stand up comedy or hosting a late show. He’s a natural, deadpan comic and would give any of the other late show hosts a serious run for their money. But keeping aside his natural flair for comic timing, he came across as cerebral, cultured and classy. He spoke in complete sentences with a logical progression of thought, an impeccable choice of words and a flair for a turn of phrase. He sounded like a favourite college prof, one you would like to name as a mentor in your later years. Some will miss his measured but honest style.

Trump, on the other hand, comes across as incoherent, rambling, bombastic and flaky. He sounds like the guy you met at your last cocktail party who has inside information about how black money never went away and offers to exchange “how much you want” for you and “knows” that this movie star is a closet pervert and brags about how much money he made last week on the stock exchange and how he is off to Davos to have cocktails with Elon Musk and advises you to buy gold because war is around the corner and our army doesn’t stand a chance because everyone is on the take and who needs a Metro anyway because it is just another way for these politicians to make money and if you want an introduction to the Chief Minister he can arrange one for you. Hearsay, opinion, innuendo and fiction delivered with straight-faced certainty and aplomb.

But he keeps getting invited to all the cocktail parties anyway because people like to listen to him and think that at heart he’s like one of us and if he can actually change some stuff around even if it really doesn’t need changing according to others then more power to him even if toes are stepped on along the way because that’s what toes are for and they’re only toes, after all. He may not be honest or truthful but he sounds sincere in his own incoherent way and he’s not from the political establishment so there’s no way he can be as crooked as them and besides, all truth is relative anyway and he does have a lot of relatives.

Which brings us to Modi who seems to have no relatives and on India’s nepotism-filled electoral stage that’s a hugely refreshing fact, which lends credibility to his claims to wanting to do the best for this huge and hugely complex society. He’s certainly not in this to create a fortune for his offspring or his family. His style of oratory is eloquent, sweeping, Churchillian, soaring, dramatic and full of flair. He loves the clever (and even the stretched) anagram and has a turn for the dramatic even when the topic is the most banal: “If Indians decide to embrace cleanliness, then there is no power in the world that can stop them!” with raised fist and podium thump. True, and a much needed exhortation to our fellow citizens to embrace civic hygiene, but also a trifle overkill on the melodrama factor. His speeches are replete with considered pauses, oratorical flourishes, grand gestures and plenty of references to himself in the third person. The latter trait (which he shares to an extent with Trump) I find disconcerting and troubling but it seems to go down well with his audiences. He has made a personal connect with the Indian voter that has been absent from Indian politics for quite a while (I would think the last one to have this level of connect would be Indira Gandhi and the flavour of the connect was different, I think). This is evident from the way that the poor seem to have interpreted the logistical debacle of demonetisation as Modi doing whatever he can for them even if it means discomfort and inconvenience immediately.

Obama’s physical presence? Restrained, courteous, empathetic. Sense of humour? Definitely.

Trump’s physical presence? Lumbering, glowering. Overuses his (tiny) hands and points too much. Sense of humour? Seriously?

Modi’s physical presence? Strong, forceful, confident and serious. Sense of humour? Tries occasionally, but I don’t think it comes naturally to him.