Politics: Mr. Obama Goes to Philly

Last spring, Barack Obama holed up in a Center City hotel room and crafted the most important speech of his life. How that address came to be — and how people reacted to it — says as much about us as it does about him

OBSERVERS ACROSS THE political spectrum say that whether he’s right or wrong, Obama delivers speeches with more panache than any other modern politician. He’s the best. So it’s worth dwelling, for a moment, on the tools he employs when he speaks.

The literary devices have esoteric names — conduplicatio, anaphora, epistrophe, mesodiplosis — but readers and listeners don’t need to know them; the devices make their appeal at the visceral level, through repetition and rhythm.

Many political speakers have a gesture they return to again and again, sometimes to the point of caricature. Think of Bill Clinton’s thumb peeping from his fist, or either Bush president with arms held out and palms facing his chest, as though embracing an invisible person. Obama seems to have a broader arsenal, tailored to the tone of a passage: the hand over heart for a moment of emotion; the tips of thumb and middle finger touched together during a professorial point; reaching out to place invisible words in the air before him, to ­isolate a key phrase.

“It’s a mixture of the purposeful and the natural,” says Shel Leanne, who recently published a book on speaking called Say It Like Obama. “He does use those devices, but he has a powerful delivery that’s difficult to teach.”

Obama had spent two decades in his Chicago church, where he picked up and refined the techniques of black pastors past and present — the rising and falling, the swelling and receding, the subtle inflections and emphases that, together, set his style apart. That’s why the spirit of Reverend Wright infused not only the subject of Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, but the delivery of every passage.

OBAMA DISAVOWED WRIGHT’S comments during his speech, but famously continued: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother. … ”

Instead he embarked on a bold tour of all racial discord in America. Anger in the black community, he said, is justified by decades of “humiliation and doubt and fear.” And likewise, he said, resentment by white Americans is “grounded in legitimate concerns.” He gave examples of each, and causes. Then he offered a solution, in the form of his candidacy: “But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people, that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that, in fact, we have no choice — we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

To even attempt such a feat required a shocking audacity: to both call upon and admonish the Founding Fathers, to criticize both whites and blacks for their prejudices, then to simultaneously empathize with both groups’ indignations, and to finally offer by implication his own presidency as a step toward reconciliation. It’s impossible to say yet whether he pulled it off entirely. But the speech certainly achieved the lesser and more immediate goal: It saved the Obama campaign.

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  • Bob

    There were a few words in the piece that I was unfamiliar with such as elegiac, lapidary, coduplicatio, anaphora, epistrophe, mesodiplosis and Janus-like.

    I found that they refer to, in order: poetic meter; crisp formal writing style; repetition; emphasizing words by repeating them at the beginnings of neighboring clauses; repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences (placed on the last word in a phrase or sentence); repetition again; and last but not least – two-faced.

    So it appears to me that the writer is saying that NObama is a two-faced rapper, one who is Wright-winged (sic) and Wrong for America. But I already knew that.

    Great article by the way.