Jun 24, 2008

Words, words, words

Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22; between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7, reports NY Mag, in a wonderful deconstruction of Obama's rhetorical gifts.
He loves alliteration (“drive the scourge of slavery from our soil”; “divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics”) and—like a fairy tale or a Pythagorean—tends to gravitate toward groups of three, building triadic phrases (“division and distractions and drama”), sentence sequences (“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…”), and successive paragraph openers (“We have been told … We’ve been asked … We’ve been warned …”). He loves to fill out the famous JFK antithesis template—not X but Y:

“A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“Our destiny will not be written for us, but by us.”

His much-discussed debt to the style of African-American preachers manifests itself most obviously in a deep love of refrains: simple phrases (“Yes, we can”; “There is something happening”) that acquire, through repetition, a centripetal poetic force that manages to yoke together diverse, sometimes incongruous aspects of American history. “Yes, we can” (repeated nine times in a single speech) unites the Founding Fathers, slaves and abolitionists, Western pioneers, union organizers, suffragettes, the space program, MLK, underprivileged workers, and children in Texas and California. In another speech, the phrase “Hope is …” (repeated five times) links the struggling poor, the families of contemporary soldiers, the Revolutionary War, WWII, and civil rights. This is the central tension of Obama’s speeches—and, indeed, of his entire candidacy: unruly diversity pulled together by visionary incantations. It links him not only to African-American preachers but to a genealogy of American poets stretching from Whitman to Bob Dylan. (Dylan, not coincidentally, recently endorsed Obama.)

I've trained myself not to think about this sort of thing too often. Obama's literary gifts seem to me a kind of blissful extra, not at all necessary to the task in hand, and maybe even a liability (inviting the charge of being "all talk and no action" etc), but every now and again I remind myself that this man really knows how to use language, and not just in a way that provokes admiration or makes you think 'that's clever', but in a way which swells your heart and gives you goose bumps. And that makes me incredibly, stupidly happy..... Okay, that's enough. Back in your box, Mr Lit Crit. Go check the Florida polls.

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