A few hundred years ago, Joe Biden said of Barack Obama:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Irony of Ironies: is Obama actually less articulate than we assumed? Of course, if articulate means "using language easily and fluently and persuasively," he is one of the most articulate national politicians to come down the pike in decades. But, if articulate means "silver-tongued," as in sharp and quick on his feet verbally, he is not nearly as fluid as we once thought.

His lackluster performance in the latest debate brings this home--but we have noticed for some time that he is much better standing alone at a podium delivering a speech than engaging in fast-paced conversational give-and-take on a stage with other political sharpies.

Why have we been slow to see this? Part of the problem lies in our prejudices (or to use a more benign phrase: our expectations). If he is to be the next great black leader, he must be a great speaker.

Part of the problem is that his real talent is confusingly connected to his oratory. His speeches can be incredibly moving (although I know a curiously high number of people who find him a total bore as a speech maker). But for the most part, he is an exciting speaker--after all, the girls aren't swooning for nothing.

But the key to Barack Obama's appeal is not necessarily his speaking ability. In truth, his uniqueness lies in his brilliance as a writer. In essence, he competently reads his outstanding speeches.

For all his gifts of persuasion, Obama is much more plodding law professor than he is scintillating trial attorney.