His Way With Words: Cadence and Credibility

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."

This is poetry.

WE are the ONES we've been WAITing for.

It's ancient English metrics: WE are the CHANGE that we SEEK, a chant of dactyls, DA-da-da, DA-da-da, as in Longfellow's "THIS is the FORest primEVal."

Rock it, Obama.

This stuff works. Franklin Roosevelt used iambs (da-DA, da-DA) that could have been lifted from Shakespeare ("To BE or NOT to BE") at the opening of his 1933 inaugural address: "The ONly THING we HAVE to FEAR is FEAR itSELF." (Though the crowd that day ignored the line -- later, newspapers made it the motto of the New Deal.)

Martin Luther King: "I HAVE a DREAM that ONE day DOWN in ALaBAMa . . . "

Analysts of Obama's oratory cite the influence of African American preaching tradition, but the influence is older, rooted like a mangrove in the swamp of the nervous system.

"It's about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama," says Philip Collins, who wrote speeches for Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. In a BBC report, Collins cites "the way he slides down some words and hits others -- the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences."

Winston Churchill rocked it in a chant of anapests (da-da-DA): "We shall FIGHT on the BEACHes . . . we shall FIGHT in the FIELDS . . . we shall FIGHT in the HILLS . . . we shall NEVer surRENDer."

He knew about the ancient Greeks controlling and defending against the power of oratory by codifying it with labels you heard once in college and forgot: asyndeton, litotes, epistrophe. For instance, here Churchill is using the technique of anaphora, repeating phrases at the beginning of clauses. Note, too, that in defense of England he uses nothing but Old English words except for "surrender," which comes from the French.

Plato defined rhetoric as "winning the soul through discourse."

Ted Sorensen, who wrote John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, said that great oratory required "speaking from the heart, to the heart, directly, not too complicated, relatively brief sentences, words that are clear to everyone."

Winning souls -- speaking to the heart, not the mind. It is a technology of sorts, a tool that can be used for good or evil, but has no morality in itself. Hitler was eloquent -- strange, though, almost no one can remember anything he said. Eloquence should be listened to with a cool head.

Aristotle said good rhetoric should consist of pathos, logos and ethos -- emotion, argument, and character or credibility. Obama has won souls mostly with pathos and ethos. He hasn't needed logos much because he's usually preaching to the choir, all those shining faces full of hope. In an ugly and dangerous moment in his campaign, however, he used logos to justify the complicated position he had taken on the incendiary racial remarks made by his former, longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It worked for him.

Usually, he is not trying to convince people who disagree with him -- he'll face that chore in the Oval Office. (As former New York governor Mario Cuomo has said: "You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.")

Here's an ethos riff from the Wright speech: "I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations."

In his review of "The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush," John McWhorter quotes author Elvin T. Lim: "Presidential rhetoric should articulate programs to citizens in a manner that solicits their support only if its wisdom passes muster."

Wonderful, but America is a democracy. Legend has it that during one of Adlai Stevenson's campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower, a supporter told him that he was sure to "get the vote of every thinking man." Stevenson replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win." Hillary Clinton went Lim's route, and lost to Obama, who, McWhorter says, got the majority by electrifying "the electorate with touching autobiography and comfort-food proclamations about hope and unity -- that is, with ethos and pathos."

And there's the charisma factor in his oratory, the quality that powered Kennedy's stunning inaugural speech in the wild winter sunlight that day in 1961: "Pay any price, bear any burden" (alliteration: "pay"/"price," "bear"/"burden"); "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country" (the Greeks called this chiasmus, meaning a reversal of terms -- "country"/"you," "you"/"country").

About a century ago, Max Weber, the sociologist, said charisma defined its bearers as "set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers." Obama has it now. It's impossible to believe it could fade, but it could. After 9/11, George W. Bush seemed to have something like it for a while, speaking from a pile of rubble in New York, striding past troops -- a moment we've mostly forgotten.

With Obama's oratory there is also the factor of cool, which could be a subcategory of charisma. Cool has a history of its own. Renaissance Italians called it "sprezzatura," meaning nonchalance and effortless ease. The Yoruba word for it is "itutu," which literally means cool -- a calm and collected affect. It has universal appeal.

Hence Obama's demeanor at the lectern -- the face lifted as if with a casual curiosity; utterly unneedy, like an aristocrat or a minor god; eyes narrowed with knowing that you know he knows you know. He smothers the last syllables of a word sometimes, casual as a teenager. He drops g's in the rustic manner to be heard in both England and America, though he doesn't drop them as much as Sarah Palin did in her celebrated good ol' girl run for the vice presidency. He shifts accents -- an African American audience will bring a hint of street talk into his voice. It's all hints, nuances, sprezzatura.

He seems at ease with power. Recent presidents have hidden their personal power, their force, during their speeches. Maybe they were afraid of seeming like bullies, of offending political correctness by seeming macho. George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson felt obliged to hide their aggressiveness behind forced smiles. They were men who acted like boys in futile hopes of reassuring their listeners. Obama has the charm of a boy acting like a man -- the magic of the boy king. His smile -- a big one -- is easy.

There is not much to say about Obama's gestures, because gesture has largely vanished from oratory. Aristotle said that only the words should matter, but because of the weakness of men, the tricks of voice and gesture were necessary.

A 19th-century speech manual listed rhetorical gestures: four positions for the feet, nine ways for the hands to show defiance, discrimination and adoration, and so on. Old film footage shows Teddy Roosevelt storming around and waving his fists. Huey "The Kingfish" Long would pound his fist into his hand, then circle his hands over his shoulders as if he were making a speech about helicopters.

Gesture of this sort began to die with film and radio, which brought politicians so close that they didn't need semaphore to reach the back of the crowd. Franklin Roosevelt kept his hands on the lectern during his inaugural address for another reason -- crippled by polio, he used them to hold himself up. At the same time, huge gesticulation came to be linked with such dictatorial crowd-rousers as Hitler and Mussolini.

Except when he points, Obama speaks more in the style of television anchormen, with their rituals of modesty and sincerity -- the raising of hands above the shoulders is almost unthinkable on the nightly news.

Speeches still have gestures, but they're more subtle. Ronald Reagan knew that in televised speeches he needed no more than a savvy eyebrow lift to make a point. Bill Clinton had a concerned frown that claimed he was, well, concerned. Obama has his smile, his thoughtful stare into the distance and his cool grace.

Radio, amplification and film also introduced a conversational tone into speeches. Roosevelt used it in his fireside chats on radio. Cuomo used it to fascinate the 1984 Democratic convention. It seems so sincere, so authentic. But the conversational tone is a trick in itself. Obama uses it to gain intimacy and trust, and to set off, by contrast, his higher-volume calls for belief and support. The sound and sight of a human being calling loudly to us still has force, maybe as much as it ever did.

We might do well to study the architecture of Greek rhetoric, so we know what's happening to us now. Just because eloquence feels good doesn't mean it is good. But that notion was irrelevant to the shining faces looking up at him, the people who had waited so long in the winter weather to be enthralled.

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