Presidential Politics: Prose/Poetry?

Iowa and New Hampshire will be canaries in the mines, indicating whether the nation is in the mood for prose or poetry.
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She's prose, he's poetry. That's the real character issue at stake.

Political differences between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama seem small next to a starker contrast: the way they "use their words."

The Democratic frontrunners for the presidential nomination are both compelling communicators. Close political outcomes -- such as we're likely to see in the Iowa caucuses -- often hang on sheer force of personality. Iowa and New Hampshire will be canaries in the mines, indicating whether the nation is in the mood for prose or poetry.

On the stump and on the page, Hillary Clinton uses lawyerly, precise language with words that carry weight. In one of her finer moments, she warned against immigration "demagogues and the calls for us to begin to try to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante."

Obama is given to lyrical flights, metaphors and turns of phrases in speeches and books. In a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, he declared, "Out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come." He bewitched thousands with his passionate way of making words dance to the music. Who knew or heard of "the audacity of hope?" Or "the insistence of small miracles?" The meanings were original to Obama, not yet a senator, deftly weaving words and images on a national stage.

Their autobiographies are telling. Take the titles of Clinton's tome, Living History, versus Obama's Dreams From My Father. Hers reads like a legal brief that she is a game-changer, a historical force in her own right, with or without Bill Clinton.

By contrast, Obama's title is wistful and yearning, with a poetical ring that brings to mind the ancient Homeric epic hero Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, who spent years in search of his father. Obama's self-portrait as the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother shows him on an identity quest in a country he calls a "magical place" on the campaign trail. His life story, spanning Hawaii, Indonesia and Harvard Law School, is indeed "improbable," a word he uses often to salt his speeches.

Clinton methodically presents her privileged journey from secure Park Ridge to Yale Law School to Washington for Watergate committee work as a young lawyer. Then she went down to small-town Little Rock to marry her sweetheart. That was her improbable turning point. She was, after all, the student speaker at her Wellesley College graduation in 1969. As she never lets you forget, she was on the frontlines of a generation of women for whom the gates of academe and opportunity opened wide.

So thorough is Clinton that she even covers her hearty laugh, a hot topic in the media. She relates that it comes from her late father Hugh Rodham: "I inherited his laugh, the same big rolling guffaw that can turn heads in a restaurant and send cats running from the room." That's a vivid voice on the page.

During her husband's impeachment, Clinton was a study in midwestern stoicism, wry and dry: "I was always doing just fine. There was nothing else I could say."

One glimmer of anguish she felt over her husband's breach of faith surfaces when she recalls posing for a Vanity Fair cover: "The Annie Leibowitz photographs were great, giving me the chance to look good when I had been feeling so low."

Compare this to a Poe-like "chamber of my dreams" which Obama describes. He dreams he is visiting his mysterious father who's locked in a cold cell. In the dream, his father says to his son Barack, "I always wanted to tell you how much I love you."

"I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him -- and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son," Obama writes in a graceful passage which could pass for poetry. There he lays bare his elemental self, grieving for the death of the father he hardly knew.

As a community organizer in Chicago, young Obama found joy in the victories of his work. One day he and a bus full of public housing residents successfully demanded asbestos inspections from the Chicago Housing Authority. That moment was sweet: "As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake, calm and turquoise now, I tried to recall a more contented moment."

Both are capable of spell-binding oratory. Clinton had her best day at a United Nations women's conference in Beijing where, as first lady, she gave a declaration on human rights: "For too long, the history of women has been a history of silence....Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words....women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

At the 2004 convention, Obama hit a nice personal note in speaking of "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believed that Amerca has a place for him, too."

Iowa will speak first, but in neighboring Illinois, the land of Lincoln, the dilemma is between a native daughter and an adopted son of the state. Which will it be, linear language or words that catch the light? Lincoln was more poetic than prosaic. One or the other may be inaugurated president in 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.

If that happens, history will rhyme, as poet Seamus Heaney says it does time and again.

When all's said, don't doubt the power of poetry when it comes to politics. Take it from Robert Frost , who composed a poem for John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. He predicted: "A golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday's the beginning hour." The thing is, he never got to read it: the bright snow's glare blinded Frost at the event itself.

Jamie Stiehm is a writer based in Baltimore.

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