By MIKE SECCOMBE
By 10 p.m. on the night of the New Hampshire primary, the signature chants of the hundreds of Barack Obama faithful gathered in the Nashua school gymnasium were getting pretty thin.
Sporadically, and particularly when the big screen on the wall cut to the speeches of the various Republican candidates — whose contest had been decided two hours previously — the call-and-response broke out still.
“Fired Up. Ready to go”.
But they sounded less fired up every time an update of the count came in, showing Hillary Clinton still in front. Some in the crowd, footsore and cramped after hours of lining up, standing and waiting, had slumped to the floor. Some looked less ready to go than ready to leave.
I was about ready to leave myself.
I had come here not as an Obama true believer, but as someone who wanted to see, close up, what all the fuss was about with this guy Obama. At university I majored in journalism, government and a stream of English studies called the prose of persuasion — essentially the study of rhetoric from its classical forms to modern propaganda and political spin.
Most of my working life has been spent writing about the way politicians communicate their ideas. And so I had driven up from the Vineyard, lobbed at the Nashua venue without accreditation, bluffed my way past the media handlers and stood for several hours trying to be inconspicuous lest I get chucked out.
Only to realize I had arrived to watch a loser.
To pass the time, as we all waited for Obama to appear and acknowledge himself as a loser, I focused on the Republican candidates’ speeches.
Mitt Romney, sounding like a management consultant talking to a PowerPoint presentation about himself, all unction and self-importance and jingoistic nationalism. Mike Huckabee, plain and folksy, with Chuck Norris peering over his shoulder. John McCain, talking like he was trying to channel Ronald Reagan, sounding sincere, but going on way too long.
Next, the third-place Democrat John Edwards, apparently yet to realize that anyone interested enough in politics to watch the primaries has heard his anecdotes, like the one about the man who lived 50 years with no health insurance and a cleft palate, way too many times. Time for some new material, John.
At 10:30 p.m., the television announced that the Associated Press had called the contest for Hillary Clinton. There were downcast faces among the crowd and a few boos.
Shortly after that Barack Obama walked in and turned disappointment to elation.
He was, he told the crowd, still fired up, still ready to go. He reminded them: “We always knew our climb would be steep.”
And he proceeded to give about the best speech of its type I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t a concession speech; it was a declaration speech. In the face of defeat, it was pure, celebratory rhetoric.
It went for only a little over 13 minutes, and touched only generally on the big policy issues. It was gracious toward the other candidates — all patriots who serve this country honorably, he said — but made no direct reference to why people should vote for him instead of them. And it summed up with three one-syllable words: “Yes we can.”
Yes we can? That’s the theme music to a cartoon my kids watch, Bob the Builder. “Can we fix it? Yes we can!”
It’s so trite on the face of it. And yet his genius as a speaker is such that it wasn’t, coming from him. I’ve watched the speech repeatedly on YouTube since then, trying to parse its power, and been back to my rhetoric texts to check on his methods.
No doubt he is a masterful rhetorician, not least in his delivery, but I think the essence of his appeal comes down to one thing, really.
It is his understanding of the mood of the country right now, or at least a substantial part of it, and the disconnect those people feel between that and America’s historical view of itself.
Don’t underestimate the power of positivity and unity among people sick of negativity and division. His core message is the one on U.S. coins, e pluribus unum, from many, one. This sense of a shared destiny is ingrained much more deeply in Americans than the bellicose claptrap which so often passes for patriotism (and its expression is inoffensive to the rest of the world).
Other candidates talk about what they will do for the people. Barack Obama, like those he invoked in the speech, including Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, talks about what they will do with the people.
Indeed, that night in Nashua he used the word “I” just three times, and “we” close to 60 times.
Here is some of what he said:
“We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. It will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.
“We have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.
“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told that were not ready or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.
“It was a creed written into the founding documents, that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can.
“It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can.
“It was sung by emigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes we can.
“It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a President who chose the moon as our new frontier and a king who took us to the mountain top and pointed the way to the promised land. Yes we can to justice and equality.
“Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.
“We will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest. That we are one people. We are one nation and together we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea.
“Yes we can.”
And the crowd went out into the night with a new chant and a new belief.