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 you can do for your country ... ”; “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 kitten.”
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 empire.”
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.
‘Change We Can Believe In’ (Canongate), by Barack Obama, contains speeches from the 2008 presidential campaign