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Reading Obama

His prose breaks all the rules with its mature complexity.

By Crawford Kilian 25 Mar 2008 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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His book, like his speeches, conveys respect.
  • The Audacity of Hope
  • Barack Obama
  • Crown (2006)

I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, and that I thought he was a good writer.

"Oh, well, he had a ghostwriter," said the friend.

"No. He writes like a lawyer."

Obama's writing style tells us as much about him as the actual content of his prose. A lawyer who writes far better than most of his colleagues, Obama has a remarkable fondness for 60-word sentences rich in subordinate clauses.

Reading his book, I itched to edit the text. Short, punchy sentences and paragraphs would jolt readers whether they read him on paper or on a website. Tough editing, I thought, could make it comparable to Tom Paine's Common Sense -- a document to detonate a revolution.

On reflection, though, I recalled that Common Sense wasn't written in short, punchy sentences either.

Breaking all the rules

Barack Obama breaks most of the rules I try to teach my students. Clear writing is brief, I tell them: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. If a Grade 5 student can understand your writing, I tell them, so can everyone else. Obama makes me reconsider my philosophy of writing.

Here's a sentence taken at random from The Audacity of Hope: "By the start of the twentieth century, then, the motives that drove U.S. foreign policy seemed barely distinguishable from those of the other great powers, driven by realpolitik and commercial interests."

That's a 31-word sentence. I tell my students to consider 20 words as the maximum sentence length. On the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale, Obama's sentence requires a Grade 12 education.

On the Flesch Reading Ease scale, it comes in at 21.1 out of 100. That's hard. A high FRE score is easier to read, and Microsoft Word advises us to aim for an FRE of 60 to 70.

When I ran a whole random page through Word's readability test, it was a passage of 366 words -- 9 sentences in three paragraphs. The sentences averaged 40 words, and the passage again required Grade 12. The FRE score was 33.4, still far tougher than the recommended level.

(By comparison, this review has a Reading Ease score of 57.3, and should be understandable to anyone with a Grade 9 education.)

What's going on here? Is he just a Harvard Law grad with a good opinion of himself, writing the only way he knows how to?

Evidently not. On March 18 Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia titled "A More Perfect Union," which struck the U.S. like nothing since JFK's 1960 Houston speech about his Catholicism.

Stunning friends, staggering enemies

It stunned his friends and staggered his enemies, and the text has been one of the most downloaded files on The New York Times's website. The speech, in its first 24 hours online, became the most popular video in the world, with 1.2 million full views.

Obama wrote that speech, 4,886 words, over the preceding weekend. (Speaking as a writer, I regard that speed as stunning in itself.) It averages about 26 words per sentence, and Flesch-Kincaid says anyone halfway through Grade 10 will understand it. Its Flesch Reading Ease score is 57.2, close to the recommended 60-70 range. He took about 40 minutes to deliver it.

I conclude that Obama is not writing with the eruditely polysyllabic contempt for his readers that makes Conrad Black so endearing. He knows what he's doing, and he knows his audience. For a spoken text, he can tighten up and simplify, though he's still far from the tabloid style I admire.

But if he's written The Audacity of Hope for pointy-headed intellectuals who've actually graduated from high school, isn't he limiting his audience? Who's got time to wade through his dense, complicated prose?

Evidently a lot of people. ranks it at number 13 in sales. The royalties must have made him one of the wealthier writers in the USA.

The elements of style

The key to Barack Obama's style is register. Register is the choice of words that define a social relationship. Stephen Harper may address us as "My fellow Canadians," but if I addressed my wife as "My fellow Canadian," she would rightly think I'd gone nuts.

For decades, Canadian and American politicians (and their apologists) have chosen one of two registers: the windbag addressing millions, or the con artist addressing halfwits. For the halfwits, short words in short sentences are essential. For the quarter-wits, make it a 10-second sound bite.

Such registers convey a contempt quite as thorough as Conrad Black's. Yet North American voters have tolerated this contempt, even seemed to demand it, since Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney.

Now, after two or three decades of discourse in this moronic register, Barack Obama is talking to American voters as if they didn't have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

And he's writing the same way. Get into one of those 60-word sentences, and you come out knowing more than you expected to learn. The cadences and rhythms carry you along, like those of his New Hampshire concession speech -- which turned into a powerful piece of music that's had 6.3 million viewings on YouTube.

Shocking the audience with respect

So the shocking aspect of Obama's prose style is not what it says about him, but what it says about his opinion of his audience: a respect Americans have not experienced since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that Canadians last heard from Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1968.

This is the reverse of flattery. Tell your students they're dumb, and they'll act dumb. Tell them they're smart and talented, and you expect great work from them, and they'll gape at you in horror. Then they'll buckle down and do great work.

When I read Federalism and the French Canadians 40 years ago, I was impressed with the quality of Trudeau's political intellect (and with the cover photo of a bohemian intellectual in a black turtleneck). It was amazing to think that such a highbrow was about to become Canada's prime minister.

Barack Obama is no bohemian highbrow. He's certainly smart, but so was Ronald Reagan, and so is Dick Cheney. But Obama's writing style shows him to be a decent man as well as a smart guy.

For my taste, he is entirely too tolerant of conservatives. But that tolerance, expressed in such graceful and demanding prose, shows him to be not just smart but wise. We have not seen his like in my lifetime.