Obama s Oratory by B8RgL7F


									Leith, Sam. “Obama’s Oratory.” The Financial Times (London), Arts & Weekend section.
Jan 17, 2009. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/acef9222-e35a-11dd-a5cf-0000779fd2ac.html

Obama’s oratory
By Sam Leith

Published: January 17 2009 00:25GMT

Barack Obama was not a politician when, at the age of 34, he wrote Dreams from My Father
(1995). He was just out of law school and had been invited to write a memoir after becoming the
first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The book emerged to friendly reviews, sold
unremarkably and fell out of print. It’s a personal book, apparently unguarded. In it, he describes
his memories of the month he had spent, as a schoolboy, with the father who had lived for most
of his life on another continent. The chief thing that struck the child about his father was the way
he spoke.

“Whenever he spoke ... his large hands outstretched to direct or deflect attention, his voice deep
and sure, cajoling and laughing – I would see a sudden change take place in the family ... It was
as if his presence had summoned the spirit of earlier times.”

Obama made his first political speech as a very young man. At university in Los Angeles, he had
become involved in student politics and he was called on to introduce a small anti-apartheid
rally. It was a crowd, as he describes it, of “a few hundred restless after lunch” – with a couple of
half-interested students playing frisbee to one side. Yet as he waited to speak, he recalled “the
power of my father’s words to transform. If I could just find the right words, I had thought to
myself. With the right words everything could change – South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids
just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.” He mounted the stage, he writes, “in
a trancelike state”.

On Tuesday, Barack Hussein Obama will make the most important speech of his life. His
audience will not be a couple of hundred students idling on a college campus. Instead, he will
address millions of people around the world and speak, for the first time, as the 44th president of
the United States of America.

With the right words, everything did change. Speaking in public seems to be both a personal
need and a political creed for Obama. He is not just a fine orator: he is consciously putting
oratory at the centre of his political being – and in so doing seeks to embed himself in a vital
American tradition.

The history of the American republic is one that can be traced through its rhetoric: “Four score
and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent ... ”; “We shall overcome”; “Ask
not what [your country can do for you] ... ”; “Ich bin ein Berliner”; “I have a dream”; “It’s
morning in America”.
The greatest presidents have tended to be remembered as the greatest speakers. In modern public
life, of course, politicians are able to draw on the services of whole teams of speechwriters. But
it’s unthinkable that a politician of Obama’s background – his skills in the persuasive arts honed
as a community organiser and political activist in Chicago; polished in the debating halls and
lecture theatres of Harvard – would simply read from someone else’s script.

The written style of Obama’s books – mellifluous, nuanced – is consonant with the baseline
language of his higher-flown speeches. It is reasonable to assume that Obama takes a very close
interest in the language and content of his speeches and that he has worked with his
speechwriters to ensure they capture, so to speak, the better angels of his literary style.

As lawyer, lecturer and politician, Obama’s “certain talent for rhetoric” (as he describes it
himself in his second, bestselling memoir of 2006 The Audacity of Hope ) has been what
propelled his rise. And his speeches are filled, thrillingly, with highly formal rhetoric of the sort
that would be recognisable to ancient philosophers and scholars of the medieval trivium – in
which rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, formed one third of an education. He absolutely
pours it on. What Obama’s doing is as old as Aristotle – whose Rhetoric set out the ground rules
for the art of persuasion four centuries before the birth of Christ.

“Ethos” was the name Aristotle gave to that part of rhetoric that establishes the speaker’s bona
fides. “Logos” – or the actual argument – was only one among three of the persuasive appeals;
“pathos” – manipulating the audience’s emotions – was just as important. Think of it this way.
Ethos: “Buy my old car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.” Logos: “Buy my old car because yours is
broken and mine is the only one on sale.” Pathos: “Buy my old car or I’ll twist the head off this

The formal terms used to describe rhetorical figures haven’t changed because the figures haven’t
changed. They still work the same way on the human ear and the human heart as they did in
Aristotle’s day.

Take the “tricolon”, for example – three terms in ascending order such as “I came, I saw, I
conquered”; or, to borrow an instance from American rather than Roman history, Lincoln’s
second inaugural with its line “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the
right ... ” This is perhaps the most famous rhetorical figure, other than the so-called “rhetorical
question”, and Obama, like most politicians, is addicted to it.

Indeed, he often builds his tricolons out of the balanced doubles known in formal rhetoric as
syntheton (“men and women”, “colour and creed”, “young and old”, and so forth) that fill his
sentences. Last July, in a speech before 100,000 people at the Victory Column in Berlin –
walking pointedly in the footsteps of JFK – he said: “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories
in Beijing are melting the ice-caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and
bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.”

A double (“Boston” and “Beijing”), leading to a tricolon whose third term is itself doubled up,
the whole mixture thick with alliteration. This is very far from informal or direct or off-the-cuff
speech. It is marvellously and intentionally musical.
TS Eliot said something to the effect that the meaning of a poem was merely something the poet
used to distract the reader while the poem did its true work upon him. You might say something
similar about political rhetoric. And as rhetoricians from Aristotle down have recognised, the
mode and shape of address are vital to its persuasive force. Much of the work of political rhetoric
depends on what it sounds like – or, if you want to be technical, how it scans.

Think of the steady, obdurate thump of stresses in Churchill’s wartime invocation of “blood, toil,
tears and sweat”; or the perfect musical rightness of the opening line of the main part of the US
Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a perfectly cadenced
iambic pentameter.

Obama’s winning slogan, “Yes we can,” draws much of its strength from its three stressed
syllables. It is a metrical object called a molossus – thump, thump, thump; as in Tennyson’s
“Break, break, break” or Seamus Heaney’s “squat pen rests”. You could, arguably, scan it as an
anapaest (diddy dum) but our boy certainly doesn’t. The official transcript of his speech at the
New Hampshire primary punctuates it thus: “Yes. We. Can.”

Repetition, particularly in the form of anaphora – where a phrase is repeated at the beginning of
successive lines – is another of the prime tools of political oratory and one that Obama revels in.
His speech at the Iowa caucus on January 3 2008 opened: “You know, they said this time would
never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too
disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

He went on to declare: “I’ll be a president who finally makes healthcare affordable ... I’ll be a
president who ends the tax breaks ... I’ll be a president who harnesses the ingenuity ... I’ll be a
president who ends this war in Iraq ... ” Then: “This was the moment when ... this was the
moment when ... this was the moment when ... ” And, as his speech built to its climax, “Hope is
what I saw ... Hope is what I heard ... Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an

To an American literate in his own country’s history, Obama’s rolling repetitions will bring
consciously or unconsciously to mind the Declaration of Independence. The run of charges
against King George in that document rolls out in an unstoppable anaphoric fugue. “He has
refused ... He has forbidden ... He has refused ... He has called together ... He has dissolved ... He
has refused ... ”

But the acute listener will also hear in Obama’s oratory a deeper and older rhythm: the strophic
structure and the parallelisms of psalms in the King James version. And that flows into his
language through another tributary: the rhetoric of the civil rights movement born and nurtured
in the Baptist churches of the American south.

Obama sets out to position himself, and his rhetoric positions him, as the inheritor of the
oratorical and political traditions of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ.
That last sounds facetious, perhaps, but it isn’t entirely intended to be. On two of the occasions –
at the declaration of his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, and on the night of the New
Hampshire primary – he refers to Dr King, he puts him in an expressly Biblical passage: “A King
who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land”; “We heard a King’s
call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

There is a strong sense of Obama locating himself in history – not so much of the past couple of
decades but millennial. One of his early campaign catchphrases was, “There is something
happening in America.” He’d talk about “unyielding faith”, “impossible odds”, “the voices of
millions”. He’d urge crowds to recognise that “this was the moment” – that past tense giving the
curious sense of already looking back on the moment, of being in and out of time; as well as
burnishing the sense that the decision has already been taken. If you share Obama’s faith, as
many Americans do, that’s by no means a paradox.

The great double movement of his election night speech in Chicago on November 4 is
expansion: from the local to the national to the global; from the moment to the grand arc of
history. Anchoring the final section of the speech in the life of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper,
he moves through the 20th century to the present, and from the segregated south to the moon.

Obama’s other dominant oratorical influence, Lincoln, encapsulates a separate strand in his self-
presentation. Declaring his candidacy on February 10 2007 in Springfield – pointedly, he chose
to launch his campaign in the town where the great 19th-century champion of the union practised
law – Obama began by talking about what the life of “a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield
lawyer tells us”. “He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in
conviction ... He tells us that there is power in hope.” He talked about how Lincoln achieved
change through “his will and his words”.

In his election night speech, Obama returned to Lincoln, channelling his appeal “to a nation far
more divided than ours”: “though passion may have strained it, it must not break our bonds of
affection.” In The Audacity of Hope, he writes that to abandon our values would be “to relinquish
our best selves”, echoing Lincoln’s celebrated invocation in his first inaugural of “the better
angels of our nature”.

For, as well as being the conciliator after civil war, the emancipator of black slaves and the
architect of a new nation, Lincoln was a fellow lawyer.

And the basic substrate of this other gangly Illinois lawyer’s speeches is the language of a clever
advocate thinking on his feet, a Harvard debating champ and lecturer. His language is littered –
not just for euphony but to give the impression of striving for the right word, the exact idea –
with parallels, mock hesitations, qualifications. As we have seen, he seldom uses one word when
a balanced pair will do. Like all the best orators, he at times affects to mistrust rhetoric,
remembering perhaps the points in his dorm-room debates as a student – described self-
reproachingly in Dreams from My Father – “where I stopped thinking and slipped into cant”.

The lawyer in Obama dovetails with the preacher. The legal instruments of the US constitution
are invested, for Obama, with a sort of sanctity. And the language of the Founding Fathers is so
deeply plumbed into the American unconscious, he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that when he
was teaching law at Harvard, “Sometimes I imagined my work to be not so different from the
work of the theology professors who taught across campus – for, as I suspect was true for those
teaching scripture, I found that my students often felt they know the constitution without having
really read it.”

Obama borrows one of Lincoln’s most effective rhetorical tricks too – the sudden drop in register
to plain style. The folksiness of Obama’s injunction, delivered on the night of the New
Hampshire primary, “to disagree without being disagreeable” is straight from the Lincoln who
talked about “cheerfully” giving protection to the states in his first inaugural. Obama described
in The Audacity of Hope watching in person the way that, at the podium, George Bush’s “easy
affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty”. Obama, you could say, strives for a
sort of messianic affability.

During the election campaign, various Republican outriders publicly sneered at Obama for
precisely his facility as a speaker. The former Republican senator Rick Santorum called him “a
person of words”, and political activist Phyllis Schlafly – amusingly identified by The New
Yorker’s James Wood as “a leathery extremist” – dubbed him “an elitist who worked with
words”. This attempt to parlay George Bush’s inarticulacy into an electoral virtue played
perfectly into his opponent’s hands. Formal oratory, as the fiercely well-educated president-elect
knows, was the foundation stone of American democracy. And unless I miss my guess, we’re
going to see quite something at his inauguration.

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