A Return to Rhetoric

by Meta Wagner

11 March 2008

Long past the days of the eloquent Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, Americans have rediscovered the desire to be absorbed by words, stirred by words, even awed by words, again.

Remember not so long ago when Americans voted for the guy they most wanted to have a beer with?  Twice?  At the time, this was treated as a typically American sentiment.  The theory went, Americans don’t want a president who is superior to them, they want someone just like them.  Someone fun.  Someone relatable.  Someone plainspoken.  Someone named George W. Bush.

Presidential elections are considered a referendum on the previous administration.  And so, most of the talk of “change” this campaign season, at least on the Democratic side, has been in reaction to President Bush’s policies in Iraq, or his tax cuts, or the stranglehold that corporate lobbyists have over Washington, or the partisan sniping in Congress that kills real progress. 

But there’s also another change occurring, one that has more to do with poetry than policy.  After seven-plus years of a president mangling the English language and speaking in a tone that ranges from smug to exasperated, along comes Barack Obama.
Call it a return to rhetoric.

It’s funny, but sometimes you don’t realize you’re missing something until it suddenly shows up again.  And then you wonder how you lived so long without it.  Like a favorite pair of shoes that got kicked under the bed.  Or your best friend from high school who just sent you an email.  Or, as it turns out, beautiful oratory

Truth be told, the lack of stirring speechmaking cannot be pinned on President Bush alone.  President Clinton’s delivery—the twinkle in his eye, the biting of his lower lip, the raising of his eyebrows—was enthralling to many of us.  But I can remember wondering, after nearly every speech of Clinton’s, why there were no memorable phrases, no future Bartlett’s quotations moments.  Maybe it was because Clinton was known for rewriting (i.e., ruining) his speeches in the final moments before delivery.  Or maybe it was because Clinton is, at heart, a policy wonk, and grand oratory was simply not his style. 

We’d have to go back to the Reagan years (much as it pains me) to find a time in American history when a president consistently delivered speeches that sounded the way speeches are supposed to sound.  Peggy Noonan, who crafted some of Reagan’s most lyrical lines, deserves much credit for this.  As she recalls in her book What I Saw at the Revolution, Dick Darman, who served in various positions in the Reagan administration, once said to her, “’You’re getting [President Reagan’s] sound.  Actually, you may be recreating his sound, and it sounds very natural to him.’”  While she wrote lovely phrases for the first President Bush (“a thousand points of light,” “a kinder, gentler nation”), they did not sound natural coming from him.  But, from Reagan, they did, and that made all the difference.

There was the speech Reagan made in honor of the astronauts who died in the Challenger shuttle disaster:  “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

And, here’s Reagan/Noonan in his speech at Pointe due Hoc, France, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion:  “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

More than two decades have passed since these speeches were given, but a new day is upon us.  To wit, here are a few lines from Obama’s victory speech after the Iowa caucus:  “Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Obama is both heralded and criticized for the degree to which his appeal rests on his rhetoric.  But an important point is overlooked in these reactions.  Obama’s speeches not only encourage people to aspire to their better selves, they’ve also made people aware of a hidden yearning.  Long past the days of the eloquent Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, Americans have rediscovered the desire to be absorbed by words, stirred by words, even awed by words, again.  That, in itself, is proof that our better selves exist.

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