Like Will Smith, who in the new film I Am Legend wakes up to find himself the last man alive in a world of zombies, am I now the only person left on the planet who finds Barack Obama a little bit dull? Every time I listen to him, I start off thinking I'm about to wet my pants, but a minute-and-a-half later find my mind wandering, asking itself things like: 'What does "the challenge of hope" mean?'Yet I turn and look around and everyone is shouting and screaming. Obama chants: 'Something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it' and there's a collective swoon from grown pundits and hardened reporters, all of them tearing off their shirts and pleading for Obama to sign their chests with indelible marker pen. Will Smith woke up to a world of zombies: in my personal nightmare, everyone around me has an overactive thyroid.
So why does Obama, billed by everyone as a cross between Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, but without the terrible looks of either, just leave me puzzled? Maybe it's because his is a rhetoric that soars and takes flight, but alights nowhere. It declares that together we can do anything, but doesn't mention any of the things we can do. It's a perpetual tickle in the nose that never turns into a sneeze. Trying to make sense of what he's saying is like trying to wrap mist.
But, rhythmically, it's quite alluring. It can make anything, even, for example, a simple chair, seem magnificent. Why vote for someone who says: 'See that chair. You can sit on it' when you can have someone like Obama say: 'This chair can take your weight. This chair can hold your buttocks, 15 inches in the air. This chair, this wooden chair, can support the ass of the white man or the crack of the black man, take the downward pressure of a Jewish girl's behind or the butt of a Buddhist adolescent, it can provide comfort for Muslim buns or Mormon backsides, the withered rump of an unemployed man in Nevada struggling to get his kids through high school and needful of a place to sit and think, the plump can of a single mum in Florida desperately struggling to make ends meet but who can no longer face standing, this chair, made from wood felled from the tallest redwood in Chicago, this chair, if only we believed in it, could sustain America's huddled arse.'
Speeches full of hot air ...
Maybe Obama is so successful because he's the supreme master of what American politics excels in: high-flown language that denotes as little as possible. America is curious in that it is the most powerful, influential nation on Earth, it's a doing country, but its politicians rarely spend time on the stump specifying what precisely they will do in case it makes them lose votes. Instead, they settle on emotive, intangible phraseology, such as Hillary Clinton's recent 'I intend to be the President who puts your futures first', uttered in New Hampshire.
I listened to all the victory speeches of the winning candidates last week and it was impossible to spot any difference in the message. Mike Huckabee said: 'This election is not about me, it's about we', while Clinton came up with the variant: 'You want this election to be about you.'
Thus both of them appealed to voters who believed strongly that elections should be about types of people. This is a theme Clinton developed when she said: 'I believe in what we can do together', a brave message this, since there was always the risk she could alienate people who don't believe in what a lot of people can do together. It may well be that the people who do believe in what people can do together came out in droves at the last minute to vote for her, hence her remarkable comeback. Similarly, John McCain's pledge that as President he would 'make in our time another, better world than the one we inherited' might have won over a lot of voters who were dead against making another, worse world than the one they inherited.
... and empty promises
This abandonment of specifics is the opposite of how politics is articulated in Britain. Here, politicians have less power, less international influence and are at the mercy of the markets and even the weather, so they try covering this up with language that is all about pledging and specific target-setting - anything, in fact, that sounds like action.
'We intend to provide a chair, which, over the next five-year period, will guarantee stability for anyone who sat on it.' 'We will introduce the most sweeping measures yet to ensure that all four chair legs are of exactly the same length and we will measure every leg on the chair twice a year and place those results in national chair-leg database.' 'We will stop other people coming over to use the chair before us.'
American politicians take time out from their busy lives to makes speeches that sound empty; British politicians fill the emptiness of their lives with words that make them sound busy. The chair, by the way, was made in China.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008