Obama's Speech More RFK Than JFK, Says Recent Alumnus

Aug. 29, 2008 — Barack Obama's historic speech Thursday night accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for president was exactly what it needed to be, said Dan Keyserling, deputy director of communications for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who attended the speech at Invesco Field, home of the NFL's Denver Broncos.

In contrast to the high-minded oratory that characterized his primary campaign, in this speech Obama gave a timely, biting critique of his Republican opponent, John McCain, said Keyserling, who graduated from U.Va. in May with a B.A. in political and social thought. Earlier, Keyserling won a Harrison Research Award for his undergraduate thesis on presidential speechwriting.

The entire middle of the speech was a laundry list of the "failed policies" of the Bush Administration, linking McCain to the unpopular president, Keyserling said.

"By leveling criticisms at the McCain campaign in a direct, frank way, Obama showed he could be a politician and a tough, viable candidate, rather than a high-minded, intellectual rhetorician — which is exactly what he needed to do," he said.

"It was maybe not the timeless masterpiece that some expected, but it was, without a doubt, one of the best political speeches that I've ever heard," said Keyserling, who spent three summers working for U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, and worked on Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in the summer of 2007.

Obama, he said, "deployed some of the most effective rhetorical techniques, and he did so with unique style and grace without losing that tough edge," producing an "electrifying" atmosphere amidst the estimated 90,000 people who were there.

Obama is known for his rhetorical skills and is often compared to President John F. Kennedy, whose first inaugural speech and famous June 26, 1963, speech in Berlin "were highly stylized — filled with allusions, metaphors and lofty imagery, woven into complex sentence structures — certainly not plainspoken," Keyserling said. 

Thursday's speech was "less JFK and more RFK," said Keyserling, referring to the confrontational, rough-and-tumble, man-of-the-people tone often used by former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. "You can win a place in speechwriting history with just the former, but you can't win a campaign without the latter," Keyserling said. "You need to be able to deliver both."

Obama was not alone in giving a great speech this week, said Keyserling, who was attending his first convention.

"Some of the leaders of the Democratic Party have really given some of the better speeches of their careers here," he said. "Especially the Clintons, who faced some really high expectations going in and, I think, met those expectations."

This was the 17th convention attended by politics professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, who typically invites a couple of staff members to join him on his convention trips. Keyserling wrote daily reports on the convention for the center's Crystal Ball Web site.

Next week, fourth-year student Isaac Wood, a research analyst at the Center for Politics, will accompany Sabato to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., where he also will produce a blog.

Keyserling said he enjoyed how the convention environment strips away the pretensions that many politicians display in Washington.

"When you accumulate all the politicians, all the media that cover politics, and all the professional political consultants in one place, no one is the one big person in the room, and it does a lot to defuse everyone's big egos, he said. "That equalizing factor makes it a lot easier to interact with them as real people."
In addition to shaking hands and having his picture taken with well-known politicians, Keyserling, formerly the executive editor of The Cavalier Daily, particularly enjoyed chatting with Ted Koppel, "an icon for any journalist," and author John Grisham, whose wife was a delegate from Virginia.

"For anyone interested in politics, this is probably as concentrated an experience as one can get," Keyserling said. "If you have a chance to go, I'd recommend it." 

— By Brevy Cannon