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Posted at 10:53 AM ET, 01/ 8/2008

Poetry versus Prose

By Michael Dobbs

The poet and the pol

"You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose."
--Hillary Clinton, Nashua, N.H., Jan. 6.

I will get back to fact checking tomorrow, but first let me share my impressions from four exciting days in New Hampshire. When I heard Hillary Clinton quote Mario Cuomo in a packed sports hall in Nashua on Sunday, I knew instantly that she had captured the essence of the 2008 presidential campaign. The most important distinction in this race, at least at this stage, is not between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It is between the Poetry Party and the Prose Party.

Barack Obama is the epitome of the poetry candidate. His speeches are short on details and specific policy proposals. But with his rhetoric about "hope" and "change," he soars effortlessly above his plodding, earth-bound rivals. Hillary Clinton is the prose candidate, par excellence. She arrives at meetings armed with long lists of carefully thought-out policies, from improving the Pell grant program to combating autism. While she can hit the high notes on occasion, she fails to stir as much passion as her rival.

It is a similar story on the Republican side. John McCain has honed his stump speech down to two essentials: As president, he will go to war against pork in Washington and will protect America from its foreign enemies. Mitt Romney addresses audiences in front of a billboard listing 13 separate campaign promises, from universal health care to strengthening families. He is not so much a prose candidate as a data candidate.

Poetry candidates talk about hope; prose candidates emphasize experience. Poetry candidates synthesize their message; prose candidates draw up laundry lists. Poetry candidates campaign on a story and a personal narrative; prose candidates campaign on their records. Poetry candidates focus on "tomorrow" rather than "yesterday." With prose candidates, the emphasis is usually the other way around.

Poetry candidates run on charisma. Prose candidates run on competence. Poetry candidates tend to be outsiders, prose candidates insiders. Poetry candidates appeal to the heart, prose candidates to the head.

As I followed the candidates around New Hampshire, I began thinking of them not as Democrats and Republicans, but as representatives of the Poetry party and the Prose party. Here is my list:

Poetry candidates Prose candidates
Barack Obama Hillary Clinton
John McCain Mitt Romney
Mike Huckabee Rudy Giuliani
John Edwards Bill Richardson

As you can see from that list, the Poetry candidates come in a variety of flavors. A Huckabee speech is very different from an Obama speech. Like Obama and McCain, however, Huckabee is a synthesizer. His message consists of two essentials: (1) I am a regular guy, just like you, the voter; (2) I represent Christian values.

To adapt a distinction coined by the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," prose candidates (foxes) know many different things, but they are little things. Poetry candidates (hedgehogs) know one big thing.

This is a particularly interesting election because there are poetry candidates in both parties. In the Democratic Party, Obama has the lion's share of the poetry vote, but Edwards (anti-special interests, fighting to save the middle class) is positioning himself to pick up the change mantle should the front-runner falter. In the Republican Party, the poetry vote is divided between Huckabee and McCain, so anything is possible.

In many American elections, there has not been a top-notch poetry candidate and a top-notch prose candidate. Prose candidates dominated the last two elections, Bush vs. Kerry and Bush vs. Gore. When there is a choice, the poetry candidates tend to do better, particularly at turning points in American history.

Poetry party Prose party
Bill Clinton George H.W. Bush
Ronald Reagan Carter/Mondale
John F. Kennedy Richard Nixon

You could detect the frustration in Hillary Clinton's voice when she made the poetry/prose distinction in the sports hall in Nashua. She did not mention Obama, but everybody knew whom she was talking about. It is not easy being a prose candidate and see a much less accomplished (in your mind) rival catch fire with the voters. You work so hard, and you are so diligent, but your efforts go unrewarded. This explains that very emotional moment on the campaign trail yesterday in New Hampshire.

"Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. Some of us know what we will do on Day One, and some of us have not really thought that through."

She is right. Life -- and elections -- are so unfair.

By Michael Dobbs  | January 8, 2008; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Off-base on NAFTA and "Hillary Care"
Next: Lobbyists for Mitt


Why is this on the "Fact Checker" blog? It doesn't involve any facts or checking. Why don't you start a separate blog called "My Random Thoughts from the Campaign Trail" if that's the kind of writing you want to do?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

If Hillary Clinton thinks that experience is so important, then why did she not campaign for Biden or Dodd who have much more experience than she has?

Posted by: NonDemocrat | January 8, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the Fact Checker needs to reread Isaiah Berlin. Typically Hedgehogs are the minds with the one big idea they subsume everything to and Foxes are the ones with multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas. As written you've inverted Berlin's original distinction, and I'm not sure the analogy works in this case.

Posted by: Raised Eyebrow | January 8, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Find Below my "poem" which was published in the Sunday Letters to the Editor Page in my Home Town news paper... The Spokesman Review

Those of us that are Poets have hope... and Dreams, and feelings of a future now that Senator Obama is fully in the race.. He has a great LeftBrain as well as his poetic rhetoric Right Brain. Best Regards

John A. Olsen Spokane Wa

A Sea Change is Coming.... Flowing Gently...
Pushed by The Breath of Hope Residing in all Hearts.

The Gentle Warm Breath of Equality Caring and Peace.

The Rising Tide of Caring and Love for our world continues to Grow and Wash the Seeds of Doubt Despair and Fear from this Earth.

Dry Small Seeds no longer allowed to Germinate and Grow into Trees of Hate and Violence.

Senator Barack Obama is that Sea Change...
Hopeful Youth that once revered John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King....
Nurturing those Tender Tendrils Sequestered in the Hearts of Humankind.....
Raise now Your High Hope that the time Finally is Now.

Consider the Truth of Senator Obama....
Truth in Consistent and Constant positions for the Lives of "other" in our Families, Cities, States, Country, and in the World at Large.

Copyright 2008 John August Olsen

Posted by: John August Olsen | January 8, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Raised Eyebrow!
You are right. I have changed it.

Posted by: The Fact Checker | January 8, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse

has anybody noticed that both McCain and Obama are both left handed?

Posted by: jillben | January 8, 2008 1:57 PM | Report abuse

"Prose" in a campaign is a good thing, but the prose is being written in a vacuum. The story changes once the candidate takes office and must accomodate his or her co-authors and editors in Congress.

Making promises about minutiae will make a liar out of you. The democratic candidates all have, more or less, the same stand on the issues. All other things being equal, give me the poetry.

Posted by: bmccormick | January 8, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Dull Competence Vs. Poetry?

What do you believe will win New Hampshire's primary vote on Tuesday, Dull Competence or Poetry?


Posted by: PollM | January 8, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Has any one bothered to read Senator Obama's CV? He is a brilliant man with a firm intellectual grasp on constitutional law and who is an expert on organizing communities to achieve difficult goals (see his victory in Iowa). His life has been a challenging one where he has shown flexibility, versatility, and a strong ethical consciousness. He embodies both prose and poetry, both the fox and the hedgehog. Stop polarizing him.

Posted by: shirlin | January 8, 2008 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I think that Obama's poetry is beautiful, but before we canonize him, please think what his constant vote record in support of so-called "reproductive rights" means for the smallest and most helpless among us. To the degree that we are willing to dehumanize one member of our family we are all dehumanized. I wish that one who is wanting to invoke the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (himself an advocate for the preborn) would include EVERYONE in his tent of care.

Posted by: Alicia Nagy | January 8, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Bush v. Gore and Bush was a prose candidate? The uniter? The "princilpuls" he evokes, but never elucidates? The president who looks into Putin's eyes and sees a good soul?
Give me a break--Bush is STILL a no-nothing, titular head of this nation.

Posted by: susan verhoef | January 8, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton was a PROSE candidate. Laundry lists of detailed policy issues. Rather boring rhetoric. He was no poet. Hillary takes after her husband.

Posted by: Ace | January 8, 2008 7:24 PM | Report abuse


I have a wacky idea to throw out to you.

Technology has changed lots of stuff.

How about you and the pro-life community set about funding a new technology:

"The Small Fetus Live House Move", wherein with the same level of intrusiveness that abortion requires, a live fetus can be transferred from the womb.

You and the Pro Life people can then find adoptive families, and I don't suspect fetus donor mothers would much mind pleasing you with their fetus donations.

Please develop modern technology to provide a working solution to what you see as a problem, since this is important to you. (And I salute you for your convictions).

When the Pro Life movement assume responsibility to develop a constructive solution for its desires, we as a country can move on from your insistance that we choose presidential candidates based on a tangential issue to the daily lives of the majority of Americans.

Alicia, my wife lost two babies to miscarriage. Neither my wife nor my prior girlfriends had an abortion.

I, like most people, would like to be able to have elections without this issue (which is marginal to the actual life of millions of Americans) issue playing such a role.

And to end unnecessary name calling and vilification of our fellow Americans that this hot button issue has involved.

Posted by: tdn0024 | January 8, 2008 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Poetry or Prose? Give me a break this is stupid.

Posted by: Greg | January 9, 2008 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Calling Obama's speeches poetry are an insult to poetry. If he submitted them to the journal I run, I would reject them with the suggestion that he try being a little more specific and say something that's actually meaningful and challenging.

Anyone who campaigned in real poetry would lose.

Posted by: EKSwitaj | January 9, 2008 1:27 AM | Report abuse

Really? Obama is poetry? Where's your proof, "fact checker"? You don't have any. Just opinion.
Well, in my opinion, all the candidates are prose, except Mike Gravel, who is vers libre drama.

Posted by: anaximander47 | January 9, 2008 9:45 AM | Report abuse

There is an art and a science to politics. Some political scientists are really boring people. Some political artists (like George Bush) don't understand reality. Poetry and Prose and the art and science of politics.

Posted by: glclark4750 | January 9, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

None of the candidates are very specific, and certainly Hillary is equally as vague as any of the others, Obama included.

(Precisely how will she draw down troops again?)

And no matter how many times Richardson says, "... and here's how I'll do it ..." in a debate, it doesn't obscure the fact that he rarely presents any clear idea how he would do any of the things he promises.

Speaking in bulleted lists does not make one more specific. Using lofty language and being a good speaker doesn't make one the "big idea guy." As usual, things are a lot more complicated than that.

This is a vacuous and useless distinction. If this is your "most important distinction" in the race, you need to take things more seriously.

You are very good at checking facts. Stick to that. (And thanks for that service, which I do appreciate, my criticism here notwithstanding).

Posted by: RPW | January 9, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Senator Clinton proved the "experts" wrong!!! She really has shown that substance, experience, and her "proven" ability for enabling change, along with a lifelong passion and experience in actually helping the majority of Americans, is what the voters care more about when choosing the best leader for this next critical term as president! Voters are not listening to the slanted views of the media "pundits" who care more about drama and a "story", rather than reporting the truth... Americans are smarter than the "sheep" they believe we are! The NH voters proved this!!!...

Thank goodness people are finally waking up and realizing that although Obama is a brilliant orator and nice person, he lacks the actual skill, leadership, experience, and ability to truly make change happen and lead our country... talk is cheap at this point - Look at his record as a State Senator in Illinois and in DC!!! Whenever he is presented with a difficult vote, he doesn't even take a stand - he votes "present"!!! He voted "present," effectively sidestepping issues nearly 130 times as a state senator. On a sex crime bill, Mr. Obama cast the only vote in a 58-to-0 vote!! He barely has any record for doing much as a US Senator in Washington DC, but what is interesting is that he said he would vote against the Patriot Act, yet when he joined the US Senate, he voted for it!! He said he would vote against the Iraq war, and then voted for funding, AND, he SKIPPED a tough vote on Iran, distorted what the bill authorized, and criticized those who voted for it!! This does not show the true leadership that is required for creating the change we desperately need! He's not the "outsider" that his campaign is trying to make him out to be - yes, he has fantastic speeches, but his record shows proves that he is more of the typical "sidestepping" polititian and lawyer that we have seen before, who lacks the "real" leadership to get things done. The Republicans will have a field day with Obama if he ever got lucky enough to win the Democratic ticket!!!

Rookies are not needed right now to run the country in the most important job in the world.... Remember the last "rookie" who used "likeability" without substance or experience to get elected? Back then, people liked GW Bush, they didn't care that he lacked experience because he talked in generalities and made us feel good. Well guess what, he won the White House and got us into this mess!! - GW Bush ran a very similar campaign as Obama, and his inexperience has been a disaster for our country!!.... Gore and Kerry warned all of us, but we didn't listen. Obama can talk in generalities - anyone can do this, but he has no clear plan, no clear ideas, shows a lack of "true" leadership by avoiding difficult decision-making as proven by his actual voting record, and lacks the "real world" experience to deliver on his unsubstantiated promises and "generalities" for change...Hopefully people won't make the same mistake we made with Bush by believing in another rookie with Obama.

Americans will take this critical vote very seriously for 2008 by choosing the best person who has already proven she can lead with success, has already brought about "real" change, and can truly pull our country together to restore our reputation and our world position as the leaders we were once considered. With former President Bill Clinton by Hillary's side, we will all prosper from such an amazing team that will help bring our country back from the difficulties that we have encountered with the Bush administration... especially with the economic difficulties and international issues we are already facing today and will face over the next few years. No more rookies and false impressions, folks - let's put the best team in the White House!! Senator Clinton is the "real" change Americans need! Go Hillary!!! The country believes in you and your ability to "truly" lead and enable "real" change as our next great President!!!

Posted by: akchonan | January 10, 2008 5:46 AM | Report abuse

I hope black people have finally learned their lesson and can see more clearly who Bill and Shilary Clinton really are. While Bill Clinton called Obama a fairytale and she discredited Martin Luther King all in the space of 7 days... it is clear after all these years who this man really is!!!
In a short matter of time he and his wife have managed to release some of the most racist statement ever heard by a former president and his wife, all due to her being behind and losing this election. I hope Barack Obama really send them packing handily and afro Americans see this lying scum from Arkansas for the con man he is... now that is what I call the Clinton legacy.. let's all just be happy they are showing their true colors now --- The Clinton Legacy = Two faced con man who stole the white house
Ann Sharkosky

Posted by: Ann Sharkosky | January 11, 2008 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it a bit ironic that in the Obama v. Clinton comparison, it is the woman that approaches issues intellectually, and the man who displays the "touchy-feely" approach. Which brings up a question: Can a woman be the "touchy-feely" candidate?

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