When, on the morning of 7 November, I learnt on the radio that Barack Obama had won another four-year term as President of the United States of America, I also learnt that his victory speech had a distinct Face –
“The best is yet to come!”
I greeted this with mixed feelings. I was delighted that he had actually given the speech a Face. Can you quote anything from his inauguration four years ago? I can’t either. It’s such a simple device, and so many overlook it. But my delight was tinged with nervousness. His Face was uncannily similar to Ronald Reagan’s under precisely the same circumstances, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was nervous lest his victory speech turn out to be merely a rehash of political plagiarism and cliché.
My anxiety was mightily reinforced by his opening which came pretty close to merely updating, “Four score and seven years ago…”; but very quickly my fears were squashed. For what it needed to be, this speech shaped into a supremely impressive example.
What is a speech like that supposed to achieve? Are we to expect detailed policy news? – a reform timetable? – a series of eye-catching initiatives? For heaven’s sake, he was there to congratulate, thank and rally. Nothing else. You’d have to work pretty hard to write a better example of that than this.
I don’t reckon anyone had written this though. He spoke for twenty minutes with no vestige of a script or notes. Many regard that as barely a notch short of magic It isn’t: it’s easy: everyone I’ve trained can do that. Nevertheless he did it in ringing tones, unhaltingly, scattering names and other data prodigiously. You may think I say this through gritted teeth because I am not his greatest fan as a speaker, but I was bowled over.
There was the series of thankings. We have all curled our toes at lame thankings at the Oscar ceremonies (all actors think they can speak in public, and very few can). Obama addressed each group of thankees in a different way. What a simple device for making each group feel special! Simple, but not easy.
He varied the vocal tone. Most of it was pretty declamatory, which is to be expected under the circumstances. This had the added advantage for him of what I call ‘relentless iambicism’ – a regular lifting of the voice at the ends of words and phrases. Iambicism can be intensely tedious unless it’s appropriate – and here it was appropriate. For Obama the advantage was that it remedied much of his tendency to swallow the ends of his words. He still referred to the ‘peep’ who voted for him in the ‘elecksh’, and so on – but I won’t rain on his parade. I began this paragraph by stating that he varied the tone. Note how he brings it right down to a quieter intensity at 8:40. Having that section in the middle of all that declaiming was particularly telling. It was a lovely section in the speech.
He stuck in a lot of huge pauses. Very dramatic: a good device for conveying security and authority: an excellent device for buying him thinking time.
That thinking time or a well-developed way with words, or both, produced for instance anadiplosis in the first minute and a very good anaphora triad at 19:20 – keep reaching, keep working, keep fighting. It could be argued that it was not just anaphora but symploce (beginnings and endings the same) because each element began with ‘keep’ and ended with ‘ing’
How to close? Send for Polly!
At 19:50 he deployed polysyndeton. If you want to build to a big finish (peroration), polysyndeton can be a good friend. You have an enormous list, and instead of reeling it off without conjunctions (asyndeton), you go out of your way to stick the same conjunction between each element in the list. In this case the conjunction was ‘or’. He began with phrases, each joined with ‘or’. The phrases became shorter which caused the incidence of ‘or’ to accelerate. Eventually he was rattling off individual words – all separated by ‘or’. The effect on the crowd was nuclear: it was never going to be otherwise. He climbed on top of the tumult by blazing extended anaphora till he was addressing bedlam. Who heard all the “God Bless America” bits? Who needed to?
Barack baby, that’ll do.