January 16, 2008
Obama's Oratorical Motif
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.
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro...We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies...We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro's...We can never be satisfied as long as our children...Let freedom ring from... (9 repetitions)I have a dream... (11 repetitions)
In his book, Night, Elie Weasel's disturbing anaphoric litany moves all but the cold-hearted dead or stone-hearted living.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Obama, in addition to his repetition of "Yes we can," also used anaphor.
There is something happening in America.There is something happening when men and women...There is something happening when Americans...There is something happening when people...You can be the new majority who can lead...You can be the new majority who can endOur new majority can end the outrage...Our new majority can end the tax breaks...
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.
(King) Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.(Obama) We can stop sending out children to schools with corridors of shame, and start putting them on a pathway to success.(King) ...transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.(Obama) ...it is not a tactic to win an election, it is a challenge that should unite American...
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.
...slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice...the tranquilizing drug of gradualism...lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity...people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice
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.