1968 & 2008: Campaigning with Style & Substance

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

As a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, CBS’s Jeff Greenfield knows a thing or two about oratory.

So we couldn’t resist: How do RFK and Barack Obama compare?

RFK was “hot.” Obama is “cold.” Both are great at wowing a crowd.

RFK “had a real sense of outrage and anger,” says Greenfield, a 24-year-old junior speechwriter during his 1968 campaign. “What he most wanted to communicate were facts on the ground, evidence. That’s when he had the most passion.”

Obama “doesn’t talk that way. One of his charms, as a speaker, is that he’s cerebral. He’s a guy who often thinks while he’s talking. He likes to speak in a more conversational style.”

Both Democrats are gifted communicators “with an authentic voice and a gift for language,” Greenfield says. “They just do it in different ways.”

Obama excels at writing and formal speeches, by Greenfield’s measure. RFK had the edge at going off script.

On the night Martin Luther King was assassinated in ’68, for example, RFK had to break the news to an almost all-black rally in Indianapolis. Ditching his prepared remarks, he held the crowd spellbound, even quoting Aeschylus, Greenfield remembers.

But delving too deep into comparisons is a specious exercise, in Greenfield’s view.

“It’s not fair to Obama or any other politician to hold them up to that standard, any more than it is to ask John McCain to reach the oratorical level of Ronald Reagan. McCain doesn’t give a prepared speech very well but in town meetings, he connects with the audience.”

A candidate’s context is equally important, says Greenfield.

As former U.S. Attorney General and top aide to President John Kennedy, RFK’s experience — or lack of it — was not an issue, Greenfield says. Also, being the brother of a martyred president gave him an unique status and tremendous political advantage.

Obama “came in as sort of a blank slate,” he says. “Who is this guy? It’s not a judgment. It’s an attempt to look at this historically.”

Like most Americans, Greenfield’s introduction to Obama was his stirring speech at the ’04 Democratic convention.

“There was a discernible silence,” he recalls. “People were actually listening to this young state senator with the weird name.

“I wouldn’t say a thrill ran up my leg, but I suddenly felt, ‘Something’s going on here.’ This was not your usual rah-rah political speech.”