January 16, 2008
Obama's Oratorical MotifBy Lee Cary
Senator Barack Obama's New Hampshire concession speech was another example of his default oratorical motif that imitates the speech patterns of Martin Luther King. While imitation is a form of flattery, it can also be a tool of self-promotion.
On January 7, while being interviewed on the FOX News network, CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer said, in a flummoxed tone-of-voice, "Obama is clipping. He's tapping into something."
The "tapping" is the hammer of Obama's repeated allusions to the language event that was The Speech that focused the civil rights movement; namely, King's "I Have A Dream" speech delivered August 23, 1963. The "something" into which Obama taps is lingering white guilt over black slavery, particularly among his younger followers, that matches their discontent concerning American politics. Despite the vagaries that accompany Obama's theme of "Change," it appeals to their malaise. Those who swoon during his speeches require few specifics. His drawing on the power of The Speech provokes an emotional response that substantially contributes to the "clipping" Schieffer mentioned.
In New Hampshire (NM) the most direct link between The Speech and Obama's speech came through yet another of his routine references to King. Toward the close, Obama listed eight periods in American history that illustrate "the simple creed (Yes we can.) that sums up the spirit of a people": the nation's founding; opposition to slavery; mass immigration; westward settlement; the organized labor movement; women's suffrage, and the path to the moon. Lastly, he closed the list with "a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land." It is as though American history stopped in 1963, and Barak has come to revive it as a political rights movement.
King's key theme in The Speech was "Let Freedom Ring." He repeated it eleven times.
Obama's key theme in his NH speech was "Yes We Can." He repeated it ten times.
Both speeches made frequent use of anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase placed at the beginning of a series of sentences. King used this common oratorical device with uncommon effectiveness in The Speech.
In his book, Night, Elie Weasel's disturbing anaphoric litany moves all but the cold-hearted dead or stone-hearted living.
Obama, in addition to his repetition of "Yes we can," also used anaphor.
In skilled hands, anaphor can deliver a rolling impact that lifts the reader or listener up into a swell of images and moods. No Twentieth Century American public speaker used anaphor more masterfully than did King. The displays of his oratorical prowess rank with Winston Churchill's wartime speeches. When Obama deploys anaphor in Kinglike fashion, it triggers images of King and the civil rights movement, even among those born long after 1963.
Both King and Obama used dichotomous or antithetical constructs wherein the second part of the sentence is the reversal of the first, typically shifting from negative to positive.
Missing from Obama speeches, so far, are King's poetic brilliance conveyed through rich metaphorical phrases that lifted The Speech to the heights of historic American oratory.
The structural similarities between Obama's and King's oratory are so pervasive that their existence precludes coincidence. The conclusion: Obama is consciously imitating "the King" in his quest to become the Prince of the Democrat Party.
So what, you ask, is the harm in that?
The Speech was a tipping point in American history. America has changed greatly since 1963. The period before it is gone and good riddance to it. America has largely learned her lessons. We have moved on.
According to Associated Press reporter Errin Haines, when Michelle Obama spoke at the Trumpet Awards celebrating black achievement, she said that her husband is the right candidate "not because of the color of his skin, but because of the quality and consistency of his character." In his "I Have A Dream" speech, King said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Haines reports that her remarks were "peppered with references" to King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Remember the past, we must. Relive it, we neither can, nor should.
Time will bring the "Change" Barak Obama preaches, regardless of who becomes our next president. And when change comes, it will live not in the ghosts of our past, but in the children of our future.
Meanwhile, the full extent of the power and range of Barak Obama's platform speaking skills are still unfolding. As he develops his voice, he would better serve the nation, and his candidacy, by clearly delineating what can be, than by rhapsodizing on what was.