Oratory captures nation's mood

The Baltimore Sun

In his first appearance on a national stage, Barack Obama rocked the house.

Giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, the little-known Illinois state legislator running for the U.S. Senate electrified the packed hall with a speech about dreams, faith and a politics of hope.

Obama evoked waves of standing ovations with such lines as, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's a United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's a United States of America." Amid the roars of approval, David Axelrod, his chief strategist, said to an aide, "This guy's life just changed forever." And so did the nation's.

Obama will take the oath of office Tuesday as the 44th U.S. president. Then, he'll give an inaugural address that is highly anticipated not only because it will be his first exercise of leadership as chief executive but also because America has come to expect great speeches from him.

Indeed, Obama's speechmaking ability has been the engine driving his political career. For all his intelligence and skill at working with others, he would never have captured the public's acclaim - and the electorate's votes - without his oratory.

"He's able to speak about himself in ways that are utterly convincing, and he's able to speak about us in ways that are utterly convincing," said Stephen McKenna, chairman of the media studies department at Catholic University of America in Washington.

David Cannadine, the recently knighted British historian and editor of Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, a collection of Winston Churchill's speeches, said, "Obama has caught a mood [in the nation]. The mood was there, but it's taken him to describe it in words that Americans can connect with." A list of Obama's key speeches, following his 2004 convention keynote, provides a road map to his rise:

* The announcement of his presidential campaign in Springfield in February 2007.

* His "closing argument" in Des Moines, Iowa, leading up to his surprise win in the state's caucuses.

* The "Yes, We Can" refrains of his concession speech after Hillary Clinton's comeback victory in the New Hampshire primary.

* His Philadelphia speech on race amid controversy over his former pastor.

* The address to accept the Democratic nomination in Denver.

* His Election Night victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park.

Yet, the speech that arguably was most important in setting Obama apart from the crowd of Democrats who sought their party's nomination last year received little coverage at the time he gave it.

On Oct. 2, 2002, the state senator from the South Side was one of several speakers at a rally against the Iraq war in the Federal Plaza in the Loop. His speech that day, like all he has since given, had its roots in the rhetorical flourishes often identified with the Roman orator Cicero in the 1st century B.C., and also in the call-and-response rhythms of the black church in America.

"I stand before you," Obama began, "as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances," and he cited the Civil War as a legitimate conflict. Three times he would repeat the phrase, "I don't oppose all wars," providing examples each time.

Then, he said, "I don't oppose all wars. ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by ... weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats."

Obama's repetition of the same phrase is a Ciceronian technique. But it also calls to mind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his repetition of the phrase "I have a dream." The Iraq war speech "was one where he just sat down and wrote it out himself," said Axelrod, now a senior adviser to the president-elect.

Axelrod said Obama also did the first draft of his 2004 convention speech. "He had a real good idea about what he wanted to say, but he was working on it in fits and starts. He was still in the legislature. He'd go into the men's room at the state Senate, and he'd scribble a few things down."

Obama is still deeply involved in the drafting of his speeches, working closely with his chief speechwriter, 27-year-old wunderkind Jon Favreau.

"Jon's really captured his voice," said Axelrod. Yet, he added, "One of the joys and challenges of working with [Obama] is that he is the best speechwriter in the group."

A case in point, Axelrod said, was Obama's address on race.

"He decided on a Friday night that he wanted to give this speech, and he wanted to give it quickly. He said Monday or Tuesday. And he said, 'I'm going to have to write this one,' and we said, 'Fine, but you're campaigning Saturday, Sunday, Monday.' He said, 'Don't worry about it. I know what I want to say. I'll do it at night,' and he did.

"He dictated an outline to Favreau on Saturday night. Favreau sent him back a fleshed-out outline Sunday night. He worked from 10 at night to 3 in the morning. We left at 8 for Pennsylvania. He campaigned all day till 9 o'clock at night. At 9:30 he went to his hotel room to finish the speech, which was to be given 12 hours later." By 2 a.m., Obama had sent the finished speech to Axelrod's BlackBerry.

Carlo D'Este, author of a newly published biography of Winston Churchill, Warlord, sees a lot of parallels between that British statesman and Obama.

"Both of these guys, their speeches inspired," he said. "The time Churchill had to make political speeches [as prime minister at the start of World War II] was absolutely the worst time in British history. Obama's offering the prospect of better days beyond the tough times we're now in."

On Tuesday, Obama, as the newly sworn-in president, will be asked to provide not just inspirational words but leadership for a nation shaken by economic threats.

"The challenge now," said D'Este, "is to put some muscle behind the words." in his own words

Barack Obama's political career has been rooted in his ability to give speeches that stir and inspire audiences. Here are some excerpts:

Against the Iraq War; Oct. 2, 2002, Chicago: "I don't oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

Keynote address, Democratic National Convention; July 27, 2004, Boston: "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? ... I'm not talking about blind optimism here - the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!"

Announcement of presidential campaign; Feb. 10, 2007, Springfield, Ill.: "It's humbling, but in my heart I know you didn't come here just for me. You came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union."

On race; March 18, 2008, Philadelphia: "I can no more disown [the Rev. Jeremiah Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."

Election Night victory speech; Nov. 4, 2008: "While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies, but friends ... though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.' And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too."

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