A rhetoric that made newness threaten less

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS:The preacher’s soaring intonations were muted in favour of reclaiming and remaking old values, writes Fintan O'Toole.

HALF WAY THROUGH his inaugural speech, Barack Obama reminded those cynics who accuse him of having “too many big plans” that “the ground has shifted beneath them”.

The speech itself was all about playing out those shifts of ground, making tangible the idea that things have changed. Some of the shifts were personal – from candidate to president, from radical outsider to authority figure.

Others – perhaps the most important ones – were shifts in the meanings of key concepts in America’s sense of itself.

The shift from candidate to president was obvious to a degree that may have disappointed some of his hearers.

It was not just that Obama’s eloquence was less fluent, less dazzling, less of a performance, than the electrifying speeches that previously defined him – the address to the Democratic Party convention in 2004 that marked him out, or the brilliant discourse on race that saved his candidacy last year.

His body language was certainly more constrained, his cadences less dramatic, his rhythms less mesmeric.

But there was more to this than the awe of the occasion. Obama was also sending out a message to his followers, and perhaps especially to the African-Americans for whom his ascent means so much. The message was that he is not theirs – or at least not especially theirs – any more.

That message was contained in the nature of the speech’s rhetoric. Previously, Obama’s speeches have fused – in a conscious echoing of content in form – the classical rhetoric of the great 18th and 19th century orators with the more ecstatic style of the great black preachers.

Yesterday, the preacher’s soaring intonations were muted. It was the classical style that predominated, and one of its exponents, George Washington, who provided Obama with his peroration.

The new president was not disavowing his political and intellectual ancestry in the black movement – Booker T Washington, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King – but he was claiming Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt as his primary forefathers.

If this choice made for a more sober and subdued speech, and one that gave his expectant audience relatively few opportunities to cheer, this was not just a matter of finding a note of solemn restraint adequate to the mood of the dark times.

It also allowed for a much more subtle rhetorical strategy, one whose boldness was half-hidden by its brilliant effectiveness.

For what the speech lacked in verbal pyrotechnics it made up in its accomplished reappropriation of concepts that have belonged to American conservatism.

Time and again, Obama took the words – greatness, power, risk-takers, doers, prosperity, the market – that litter the language of any blowhard patriot and shifted their ground. Instead of confronting this inherited rhetoric head-on and pouring scorn on its cynical misuse, he at once reclaimed it and refashioned it.

This was the characteristic gesture of the speech – not to disavow the old, but to try to renew it, not to confront directly what he called the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable” with a call for pure novelty, but to make newness sound less threatening by giving it a reassuring cast of continuity.

If there is one word that dominated the speech, it was the simple, unpretentious three letters “but”. Thus the most basic preconception of hackneyed political boilerplate – that America is great. Sure it is, Obama said emolliently, but greatness isn’t something you can assume but something you have to create: “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned.”

Likewise America is powerful – everybody knows that. But what is power? It is contingent, shared and limited: “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please”. And it must be exercised, in the words that more than any others marked the degree to which the ground is being shifted, with “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

The market is good. Sure, said Obama, but it can spin out of control and thus, he implied, must be harnessed to the common good. Prosperity is the essence of American identity but, in a beautiful twist of the word, Obama declared that “a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous”.

Risk-takers and doers – to whom every speech on the wonders of capitalism must bow – received their standard homage, but who are these achievers? They may be the rich and famous but – that word again – they are “more often men and women obscure in their labour”, the women and men who have had to show courage and ingenuity merely to survive.

In his deft use of this strategy, Obama was able to dress up a radical critique of some of the key American shibboleths, not as a wild departure, but as a reaffirmation of the old values. And in parallel with this refashioning of conservative words, he also managed to reshape American history.

Even as he evoked Washington and the Civil War and the conquest of the West, and set up the task of being “keepers of this legacy”, he was also, through his imagery, altering the meaning of that history.

His language was at its most potent and vivid in making history, not a tale of the heroism of the great, but of the struggles of the miserable.

His most telling phrases were decidedly anti-heroic in their conjuring up of the physical pain of the anonymous majority who “toiled in sweatshops . . . endured the lash of the whip”, and “worked till their hands were raw”.

And this was not just a nod to Obama’s radical roots. It was also the foundation for his appeal to contemporary America.

Apart from “but”, the most resonant word in the speech was “work”. That little word, and its variations, were studded throughout the speech, making it a call, not to arms, but to labour.

“The world has changed,” Obama said, “and we must change with it.” His speech will not change the world but it did what speeches can do and made a start by changing the words.