Yet if Clinton’s answers come off as well-intended lectures, Obama is offering soaring sermons and generational opportunity. In 1960, the articulate Adlai Stevenson compared his own oratory unfavorably with John F. Kennedy’s. ”Do you remember,” Stevenson said, “that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke,’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, ‘Let us march.’ ” At this hour, Obama is the Democrats’ Demosthenes.
Demosthenes was certainly a persuasive speaker and has been remembered as one of the greatest orators, so on this level the comparison does Obama great honour (one might say far too great). Demosthenes was demagogos in an age where that label did not necessarily carry quite the same pejorative meaning that it does for us, whereas Obama is simply a demagogue in the conventional sense who has never actually led much of anything. Demosthenes was also the late classical equivalent of a jingoist and his avowed policy of confrontation with the Macedonians brought disaster to his city. In short, to be a group’s Demosthenes is to be an extremely eloquent and unwise man who brings ruin to his country, as well as meeting an unhappy end personally. Perhaps in a future column praising Hillary Clinton Dionne could liken her to Helen of Troy. With praise like this, Obama doesn’t need criticism.