I have a new working theory, which came to me in an epiphany while, as is usually the case, I was watching TV. Here goes:
Barack Obama's success is owed in part to David Letterman.
Letterman's regular pillorying of President Bush in the segment "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" evoked in the American cultural memory a longing for a great orator, someone whose words could capture the significance of a moment, add meaning to it and rally people around a vision for the way forward. Phrases such as "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," even Reagan moments such as "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" reminded us that great moments call for great presidential speeches, and that it's been at least twenty years (and I would argue that it's been at least forty years) since a president has provided that for us.
There have been important speeches, of course, from the aftermath of 9/11 to the concession of Al Gore in December 2000 to some of Bill Clinton's state of the union addresses. Some of those speeches have been pretty good even; I remember watching Chris Matthews, himself a former presidential speechwriter, fight back tears during the Gore concession speech. But the days of momentous American oration ended, so far as I'm concerned, in 1968 with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, which incidentally was before I was born, and I'm no spring chicken. So for millions of us, great speeches have been effectively prehistoric.
Until now. Obama is talked about for a few key things: his ethnicity, his experience, his associations, his oration. Talk of his ethnicity is always equivocal; it shouldn't matter in America. Talk of his experience has been handily countered with talk of the need for change. Talk of his associations is tricky for any of Obama's critics, since they likely have more and less savory associations by virtue of being in the business longer. That leaves his speaking skills, which leaves everyone in awe. I think he leaves everyone in awe in part because he's so dang good at it, but in part because we've been reminded for eight years by David Letterman that once upon a time presidential speeches--really, speeches of any kind whatsoever--could be worth memorizing, studying, discussing, living into.
I'm sure that David Letterman will find ways to mock and tease an Obama presidency, but he will surely have to retire the segment "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches." It won't be funny anymore, it'll only be great.