Ding, Dong…the Language Manglers Have Left the Building — About Damn Time
There have already been some critics out there who have done their work on Barak Obama’s first inaugural address. And being the person who has probably written the most often here about language and how the last bunch of yahoos twisted, eviscerated, and mangled it, I claim my right to my share of real estate here to discuss why I think that a) Barak Obama is a great writer and b) Barak Obama is a great and inspirational speaker.
First, let’s look at what this speech was NOT, as in what was Bush’s last inauguration speech.
That speech, analyzed more closely than perhaps anything other than The DaVinci Code, contained so many secret and open messages and code words that it was pretty obvious that it was an open marketing device from Bush to his hyper-conservative, Christian and militarist base. The only thing missing was a call for every man, woman and child to take up arms and board ships for the Middle East. As it was, even Peggy Noonan found it ‘scary and creepy’. It was not a speech with an inclusive message – it was Bush’s love note to his base.
Second, let’s look at what this speech WAS and IS: by writing it the way Obama did (and Obama wrote his own, unlike George W. Bush, who probably would have come up with something approximating “My Pet Goat”), the new President was staking his claim to HIS base – which he identifies all along the way as being every single person in the United States: naming off colors, races, religious beliefs(and non), economic status. The only people he did not mention were MY group: the short and stout. But he’s forgiven.
So, the first thing Obama did was take the flag and wrap it not only around every one of us here, but also himself:
“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.” Right here; right at the beginning, Obama wraps himself in the flag – “I’m an American, too.”
The second thing that jumps out at listeners and readers of the speech is that Obama has a bag of tricks that frankly all really good public speakers use and which also reminds me a lot of Martin Luther King’s techniques. I am fairly sure Obama has listened and read King’s speeches and is using the techniques here:
“The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.” Prosperity and peace: two really powerful words reminding the listeners that the two things go together – and they are both ‘p’ words. Alliteration is powerful (another ‘p’ word) in spoken form.
“So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.” Repetition of the same word is another very powerful tool in the spoken form.
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met. “ Again, he uses the same word, ‘they’ as a hammer.
Now, Obama does reach into the religious and I think what he is doing is reaching out and connecting himself with another, and very important, part of his base, which is the black community:
“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” This is a really heavy religious-based paragraph here, but he combines it with another hammer, the word “all” and it’s not the ‘fire and brimstone, fiery sword, God has put me in this place at this time to …..” thing of George Bush’s Second Inaugural Address.
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.” Anyone who is familiar with the program of the Passover Sedar recognizes this technique of using “For us” – in describing the toil and sacrifice of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their escape and journey in the desert – that phrase is very very prevalent in the reading.
But notice at the same time his use of the phrase ‘endured the lash of the whip” – this is a direct connector with the slavery experience – but that experience is at once fairly immediate for the black community in the United States but also metaphorically for Jews everywhere. The program of the Seder instructs participants to think of THEMSELVES as being slaves, of going from toil to freedom, despair to happiness and so on. This is a really all-inclusive blanket he is using to pull people of various backgrounds and skin colors together here.
Another verbal technique Obama uses is really interesting sentence constructions such as this one:
“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift..” The construction here is really poetic. He does not say, “The state of the economy calls for bold and swift action.” He puts the important phrase at the end, where the strength of the words can stand alone: “bold and swift”. And he uses ‘swift’ – not “fast” or ‘quick’ or ‘expeditious’ or ‘efficient’ …’swift’ – that’s a great spoken word because you have a bunch of sounds that come out of the front of the mouth: ssssss-ww-i—fffff-ttt. That’s a great front-of-the-mouth word. ‘Quick” would get swallowed. “Fast” is not bad but ‘bold and fast’ as a phrase is just weak.
One of Obama’s strongest techniques in this speech is the asking of rhetorical questions – leaving listeners with powerful memories and slogans:
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is a great ‘workmanlike’ sentence – and reminds me of the statement made by a recent Chinese premier in terms of that country’s movement toward capitalism, “What does it matter if it is a capitalist cat or a Communist cat – the question is, does it catch mice?” This is sort of the ‘leaving the theater whistling the hit tune’ sort of sentence that gets repeated by people in their heads and to their friends.
One of the things that I really loved about this writing is the level of cleverness. We have had to endure 8 years of people who have poor vocabularies, who delight in mangling the language, who have no respect for grammar, who take aim at eviscerating the strength and meaning of our language. Barak Obama is an English teacher’s delight; he loves language, the sound and meanings of words and putting them together. Here is one of my favorite turns of phrase:
“..that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” This is powerful because he takes one word in its verb form “prosper” and uses that word in its noun form “the prosperous” to make his point. He gets double points for alliteration (more ‘p’ words) AND for clever grammatical legerdemain.
I hope now that you will listen to Obama give that speech(which, by the way is 2390 words long) and will go back and read the text of the speech. Look at the construction of it, where he takes the listeners in his trip down the river with him, and where we all wind up at the end. Together.