Barack Obama has written speeches on notepads, paper scraps and computer screens, in settings that include planes, cars and a men's room at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield.
For the speech he'll give Thursday to accept the Democratic nomination for president, Obama wrote into the night last weekend in a hotel room 15 minutes from his Chicago home. There were no distractions there. And in 2004 he had holed up at a hotel to draft the wildly successful convention speech that catapulted him into national politics.
"Superstition," he says.
Introspective, inspirational, by turns pointed or biblical, and always tailored to the political moment, Obama's speeches have been a defining feature of his historic ascent. This week, with the eyes of millions upon him, the Illinois senator says he won't attempt a reprise of his exhilarating debut four years ago.
"I don't think you can duplicate that kind of moment," Obama said this week.
Besides, he says, he's no longer part of a supporting cast for another standard-bearer. Now he needs to lay out exactly who he is and how an Obama presidency would differ from an administration headed by Republican John McCain.
Thursday is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech and Obama, the nation's first black major-party nominee, says he will note how far the nation has come. But nuts and bolts are his top priority.
"I'm not aiming for a lot of high rhetoric," Obama said. "I'm much more concerned with communicating how I intend to help middle-class families live their lives. I want people to come away saying, 'Whether I'm voting for the guy or against the guy, I know what he stands for. I know what he believes.' "
Obama's lofty language has been an irresistible target for his rivals, from Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's charge during the primaries that he's "just words" to McCain's attempts to cast his opponent's oratory as a sign that Obama is a vacuous celebrity and/or an arrogant messiah wannabe.
Obama's defenders scoff at the idea that giving a good speech is a weakness.
"Did Ronald Reagan seem less down to earth because he was inspiring in his speeches? Was John Kennedy less down to earth because he asked us to put our country ahead of ourselves?" asks Robert Gibbs, a senior strategist for Obama.
Emphasizing 'personal input'
As Obama prepared Thursday night, spokeswoman Linda Douglass said, he reviewed acceptance speeches by more than a half-dozen presidenital nominees — from Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Democrats Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John Kerry. He wrote his own in pencil on a legal pad, typing his words onto a computer. He's been editing it on the road this week with top aides.
Obama, the author of two best-selling memoirs, is a rarity among national political figures in that he has long been intimately involved in preparing the precise words to be used in his speeches.
When he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000, recalls his former media adviser Chris Sautter, Obama rewrote the announcement speech aides gave him and tweaked scripts for radio ads even as he was walking into a studio to record them.
Gibbs and others who have worked for the Illinois senator say he is the best speechwriter on the staff.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says Obama's level of involvement is unusual. "There aren't a lot of people in public life who do this personally," he says. "He likes to have personal input."