Inaugural Expected to Show Obama's Skill at Ancient Art of Political Oratory

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President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address Tuesday following his swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Video by washingtonpost.com

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By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Then President Barack Obama stepped to the lectern, surveyed the uncountable crowd, and delivered his Inaugural Address, his clear, insistent, youthful voice that somehow has the lifting quality of an airplane taking off, winging west toward the Lincoln Memorial and across the country.

Seen from the Mall, from bleachers, from a distant seat in a winter tree, he was just another in a long history of tiny humans up there, bustling around against the shoulder-y bulk of the Capitol.

Jumbo screens relayed his image to the crowd -- images rule now, wisdom has it -- and Obama once more had a smooth, cool, minimalist one. But people had come, in a way they haven't come in a while, not just to see him but to hear him, to listen to his words, to compare his speech with the other speeches that have enthralled audiences since his campaign began.

Supporters talk about Barack Obama's speeches as if they were rock concerts. Blew me away . . . I realized I was crying . . . They brag about having been in the hall to hear them the way they might brag about having been at Woodstock when Jimi Hendrix played "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the dawn's early light.

As much as anything else, Obama won the presidency with words. He is an orator, a rare thing in a time when educated people, a lot of them Obama supporters, have been taught to distrust old-fashioned eloquence. They want text they can deconstruct, the verbal equivalent of spreadsheets; they say they want candidates who talk about "the issues."

That's not what they've gotten from Obama. As the presidential race shaped up, Sen. John McCain saw what was happening. He warned Americans against being "deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change." Sen. Hillary Clinton, too: In the process of losing the nomination to Obama, she warned of "talk versus action."

As it happens, Obama can deliver deconstructible text, but in Denver, when he did it, accepting the Democratic nomination with a speech stacked with programs, policies, issues and specifics, he mildly disappointed those who hoped to be enthralled yet again. They didn't want to move into a rational, deliberate future; they wanted to stay with the ancient mojo of one human being talking to a crowd of other human beings.

This is an age of media hipness, when we're virtuosos of data bounced off satellites, when we get weird as wizards, talking on cellphones to electronic ghosts constructed of bandwidths and wavelengths. But Obama has reminded us that none of this modern science has the power of the human animal standing up on two feet and talking -- a sort of ritual shouting, actually, even chanting: oratory, probably not much different than the way it was done by the Old Ones in the forest primeval. We're not used to this. People call it "preternatural."

"The crowd was quiet now, watching me," Barack Obama has written of discovering this power in college. "Somebody started to clap. 'Go on with it, Barack,' somebody else shouted. 'Tell it like it is.' Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made."

Connect. Yes, we can.

Connect with repetition, cadences, attitude, rises and falls of tone. Yes, we can.

Obama's speech on Super Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2008: "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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