Storytelling a presidency: Westen and the critics

State of the Union, 2011

Yesterday saw one prominent analysis of president Obama as flawed storyteller. It’s a moving, if flawed piece, and well worth reading for anyone interested in storytelling.

Many critics have pointed out its analytical problems, from inaccurate assessments of political environments to weird history (examples: here and here).  I’m persuaded by these.

From a storytelling perspective, two more issues emerge.  First, Westen’s emphasis on story and weakness on non-story-based fact leaves the article open to charges of overvaluing narrative at the expense of, well, reality.  It’s a classic charge, and one storytellers frequently have to work with or around.  As Jon Chait snarls beautifully,

In Westen’s telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.

Second, there’s a deeper problem for storytelling when one focuses on The Story instead of multiple, active, listened-to tales.  As Kevin Drum points out, Obama actually has been telling a story all along – just not the one Westen wanted to hear.

The problem isn’t that Obama didn’t have a story. He did, and he told it pretty well. His story was one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it. You might not like that story, but it was there.

That’s an important caution to keep in mind when we look for something’s Story, or assess how well it’s told.  For example, see how Jesse Walker zeroes in on one Westen passage:

From an essay in the Sunday New York Times: “The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led.” No, that isn’t an historian explaining the rise of Mussolini. It’s the Emory psychologist Drew Westen, writing wistfully about the leader he wishes Obama would be.

With sentences like that, a very different story emerges.


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