So glad I dipped into James Wood's wonderful parsing of Obama's speechifying in this week's New Yorker. Since Obama's election I've watched You Tube and other postings of Obama's oratory, in particular his fabulous treatise on race in America last spring and his acceptance speech in Chicago. I"ve listened to these two speeches a couple times, yet still I get chills and now, with his victory, even teary-eyed. George never made me cry, only cry out, and Sarah made me wince. But listening to Obama, I get carried off on a near-dreamlike sea of rhetoric and meaning, and feel connected once again to my own past, my country, my civilization.
Wood's article analyzes the magic behind the power of Obama to move. It's magic, yes, but not a trick or a fabrication. While Obama of course, like any great orator, weaves together words, rhythms, and images, he shows himself to be more a master allusionist, an exploiter of phrases that resonate through the American subconscious. "By the people, for the people" is maybe the most obvious example. Wood also points to Obama's clever archaism of "where we are met with cynicism" echoing Lincoln's "met on a great battlefield," and his use of the word "promise" to evoke the "promised land" that MLK claimed to see on the eve of his assassination. Barack being smart, and gifted, it is no coincidence that he is drinking from the well of these two leaders, both of whom have become iconic vessels of our nation's yearning for both heroes and salvation.
It's great to see smart language in a public place. And it's great to see powerful oratory used to generate hope instead of fear. I'm basically a words-on-the-page guy, but when it comes to making sweet music out of language, Obama's got my vote.