The thing I love most about political conventions is that it’s one of the few chances to see high-stakes oratory and the broad range of people–smart, charismatic, successful people all–who fail and succeed at it. Mark Warner, for example, was a successful high-tech businessman and a fine governor, and he’s coasting towards the Senate. Remarkable achievements. And he gave, out of all generosity and ideological bias, a forgettable speech. A dud. It translated fine as soundbites in the wrapups, since it was a hash of soundbites, but as a speech, an act of performance, it failed.

And it really doesn’t matter all that much. Mark Warner is a good, popular, and not uncharismatic politician, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he succeeded his namesake John as a long-serving, powerful Senator with bipartisan admiration.

On the other hand, having just seen Barack Obama deliver a masterpiece in all respects–style, structure, delivery, and strategy–it was bracing to feel the awesome power of great oratory. As someone who cares very deeply about the power of words across all media and who thinks in my darkest moments that the art of sustained, sophisticated prose is past us, watching and realizing that rhetoric qua rhetoric can change the course of history on its own, realizing this as it is happening, is a rare experience. The last couple minutes, beginning with his invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr., are breathtaking.

Bill Clinton could go there on occasion. George W. Bush, who was a good and underrated speech-giver (as distinct from speaker) back when he had the confidence of his team and the American public, before he himself burned out, could too.

Reagan I was too young to appreciate, but I have it on good word that he was better than anyone who followed him, at least until now. Before that I suppose you have to go all the way back to JFK. And presuming that Obama is their equal as an orator is vital to understanding his appeal. Neither Reagan nor Kennedy, to me at least, was a good president, but both galvanized movements and have been, since their presidencies, the key figures for their parties. As a partisan Democrat I find this a bit shameful with regards to JFK, but I do admire the role of his oratory and personality in revitalizing the appeal of public service and scientific achievement as patriotism. On the other hand, I also admire Reagan’s role in building a young, devoted, and devoutly patriotic conservative base.

Both men, deservedly or not, represent national greatness for the Republican and Democratic parties, which is a troublesome but inevitably appealing concept and one that can, even in the hands of an ultimately disappointing politician, do right by the country. We may need a “good, dull Cincinnatus” (to borrow P.J. O’Rourke’s phrase–I guess Eisenhower would be the modern equivalent? a non-sociopath Nixon?); we want someone inspiring, even if it means casting that inspiration back upon ourselves for it to do any good.

This is what’s worth remembering when people contend that Obama is using the Democratic party. It takes two–he’s what Democrats wanted, for the nation and for the party. That gift, which we saw tonight, is the reason he’s the Democratic nominee, partially through the wisdom of the crowds, partially through the machinations of history, partially because these very ideas were earnestly hashed out in the media and on the Web. And I can’t tell you where it’s going, but after tonight I have a better sense of how it got here.

Update: Publius at Obsidian Wings has a smart take. “This is why he got nominated — and he came through.” And if there’s precedent for a politician gaining prominence on the basis of his speeches, it’s Reagan. It’s not so much that he was an actor–a “celebrity”–as the time he spent barnstorming for G.E. His job was writing and giving speeches.

P.S. One thing I should emphasize–a speech like Warner’s, provided it has a few good soundbites, is fine for most purposes, in that it gets a few bones out there for pundits to play with. But stirring an audience demands the craft, the attention to detail, the through-composed structure that Obama’s speech entailed. Politically it was quite sophisticated, as well–the defenses against McCain’s attacks doubled as attacks, the difference between gay marriage and civil unions was addressed while slyly if cynically elided, etc.

But the one part that moved me, as craft, was the structure. It was surprisingly engaging, sometimes riveting, for 45 minutes, and sustaining that kind of momentum for that long takes a real virtuoso. Compare it to Hillary’s speech, which was professional, well-delivered, effective, and at the end inspiring and even exciting. It was a very good speech, while Obama’s was truly great. Enjoy the conventions while they last–if you’re into the dying art of oratory, it’s like the Olympics.

P.P.S. Offhandedly I’ll say that I think McCain had this gift in 2000, but after the brutal loss to Bush in South Carolina, having to eat W’s shit with a smile for eight years, and suffering all that for the nomination just to fight not only Obama but a rotten heap of an imploding party–call it the Morning After in America–might have broken him. At the very least I can see why he seems so pissed off all the time. I’m too tired to make this argument in any respectable form so YMMV, but that’s my intuition, at least.