As some one who has had the occasion to do a lot of public speaking, I pay particular attention to speeches, speakers and general speechmaking of any sort whether it be impromptu, theatrical, extemperaneous or formal. The time for great formal speeches and statesmanship seemed to be in the past until the admittedly astounding rise of Barack Obama, and it is good to see such renewed interest in speeches from the Joe Six-Pack crowd. Yesterday, in the midst of a national moment of celebreation and rejoicing, we heard freshly sworn-in President Barack Obama’s first speech to the nation he now leads. More than just the typical quadrennial refreshing of executive authority and dusting off of pomp and circumstance, this event was widely anticipated to be a unifying touchstone and a lamplighting of historic proportion.
And it was.
Ok, yeah but how was the speech?
I found William Safire’s critique to be especially astute in the technical analysis. I even learned a new word. Anaphora: a rhetorical technique utilizing the same opening phrase in several successive sentences. He dates himself to the era of critical formalism by refusing to acknowledge context, thereby limiting the usefulness of his appraisal to the technical. I do agree with his assesment that there was no “great theme,” but I think that using a slightly wider lens we can see where this speech fits in at the tail end of the candidate’s theme of “hope/change” and the start of a presidential theme of “change/work.” Obama’s truly great speeches tend to come in the middle of an effort, not the start or end — hallmarks of someone that has thinking more evolutionary than revolutionary. With that in mind look to this summer for truly world-changing rhetoric.
Jeff Shesol then lauds the restraint displayed, which I agree with.
While commending the President’s aggressive attempt to spread the center to the “very boundaries of the nation,” Gordon Stewart is put-off by the lack of specifics. But in an administration promising to be the most open and transparent in history, are important speeches the place to elaborate on policy minutiae?
The Times also has this excellent interactive page with every inaugural address, with synopsis and a tag cloud for each.