A Revival of Eloquence

A key element of the Obama presidential bid was his rhetorical skills. Beyond question, he has been the most eloquent speaker on the national stage since Martin Luther King, Jr. Not even Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, or Billy Graham had the impact on the general public that the new president has had.

The truth is, Obama has raised the bar for those who would lead the American people. For too long we have settled for leaders with mediocre speaking ability. In fact, it may be that we have in this one election gone from the least able speaker to the most able speaker, just as we have gone from the most conservative to the most liberal. If Obama governs as well as he speaks he will have altered the course of public speech in America.

Just like Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States pushed aside the standard style of his day: flowery, full of allusions and quotations, pompous and very long. Lincoln was plain, simple, brief, and artfully worded. Garry Wills wrote a book about the transformation of rhetoric by Abraham Lincoln.

We could wish the same for Obama. While critics decried his style as “nothing but rhetoric” and “style without substance” the American people were moved by Obama’s soaring eloquence and learned again that the ability to inspire people is the chief element of a leader.

Obama’s skill as an orator surely is rooted in natural ability, disciplined intelligence, and—let’s be honest—the influence of preaching. True, Obama had to adjust his ties with his long-time pastor, but not before the flamboyant Chicago minister embodied for the future President what strong, simple, soaring language can do to mobilize a people.

Obama may have intentionally mimicked Lincoln in another way: including in his emerging circle of advisors people who were once his staunch critics. The book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005 by Doris Kerns Goodwin describes this presidential strategy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can implement it as successful as did Lincoln. That has to do, again, with the ability to govern.

But one thing is for sure: Obama has reinvigorated public speech. People are glad; they voted for him. University professors of rhetoric and high school speech coaches will both be thrilled; perhaps the President’s success will bring into this ancient discipline a new generation of talented young people.

But I represent another legion of people who must take note and give thanks: those of us who mentor and teach young preachers. A seminary president said to me as we lunched together on Election Day: “This is good news for preaching.” I think he is right.

The irony is this: the very person critics once accused of being Muslim, who at a critical time in his march on Washington found it necessary to disavow the rhetoric of his own pastor may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in shaping gospel preachers of the 21st century.

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5 comments so far

  1. Tom Chaney on

    Aside from the beauty of our president-elect’s rhetorical style. I am struck by the clarity of thought behind and within the style. There is a direct relationship between the effective use of language and the ability to think clearly.

    Perhaps we are in for a time of agreement between subject and verb designed to communicate ideas clearly, rather than befuddled syntax which bespeaks either a fuddled brain or a deliberate desire to hide truth and confuse thought.

  2. Jinny Vicroy on

    OK… How in the world do you get the connection between Obama’s skills as a political speaker to influencing and shaping gospel preachers. Seems a stretch to me. What about the men and women who are his speech writers? You do know he did not write all of that by himself. Am I missing something? Do preachers shape the way they present the message based on the current days public speakers? Is that what you teach them in seminary? Perhaps he just hired the “write” guys?

  3. Rick on

    President-elect Barack Obama is a very charismatic speaker almost hypnotic, very similar to Adolf Hitler, another very charismatic speaker. Adolf Hitler was able to gather a country of people and get them excited about whatever it was that he was talking to them about.

    In 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he gave an acceptance speech in which he described the then-current condition of Germany as having “seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences.” In speeches that mesmerized the German people he promised change, unity and peace if the people would be “obedient” and follow his plans for National Socialism described in his book, Mein Kampf.

    President-elect Barack Obama made pretty much the same promise in his acceptance speech. He described this nation as facing the “greatest challenges of our lifetime” and promised change, unity and peace, if only we now will rise and follow him as “one people” into his version of national socialism.

    Like Adolf Hitler, before he had any accomplishment to report, Obama wrote his autobiography “Dreams of My Father.” And, like Hitler, Obama is viewed emotionally by most of his nation as one who can “save” them from problems or discomforts they experienced during a previous government. Now that he has been elected, Obama tells us, “at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

  4. Carl Peters on

    Mr. Obama has demonstrated to everyone that he can read with great passion and calrity the speeches prepared for him. He has talent with a teleprompter. The few times his prompter failed were quite telling. He is adept at the art of “acting.” When left to his own manner of speaking, however, the ummms and uhhhs are quite evident and troublesome.

    Much more troublesome is the fact that the soaring rhetoric of his fine speeches has not been accompanied by new and fresh ideas. Further, it seems that the style of his delivery has enchanted the masses while the specifics of his proposals and positions have been lost on them.

    A recent Zogby poll reveals some amazing things about those under the Obama spell:

    512 Obama Voters 11/13/08-11/15/08 MOE +/- 4.4 points

    97.1% High School Graduate or higher, 55% College Graduates

    57.4% could NOT correctly say which party controls congress (50/50 shot just by guessing)

    71.8% could NOT correctly say Joe Biden quit a previous campaign because of plagiarism (25% chance by guessing)

    82.6% could NOT correctly say that Barack Obama won his first election by getting opponents kicked off the ballot (25% chance by guessing)

    88.4% could NOT correctly say that Obama said his policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket (25% chance by guessing)

    56.1% could NOT correctly say Obama started his political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground (25% chance by guessing).

    And yet…..

    Only 13.7% failed to identify Sarah Palin as the person on which their party spent $150,000 in clothes

    Only 6.2% failed to identify Palin as the one with a pregnant teenage daughter

    And 86.9 % thought that Palin said that she could see Russia from her “house,” even though that was Tina Fey who said that!!

    Only 2.4% got at least 11 correct.

    Only .5% got all of them correct. (And we “gave” one answer that was technically not Palin, but actually Tina Fey)

    We may be in danger of giving too much credit to a man bereft of new ideas, but very attractive given his skills as a speech reader.

  5. Camille Haggard on

    I don’t know…I thought Clinton was pretty eloquent, especially the “I did NOT have……..” but on a more serious note, don’t pin your hopes on any man. They will only fail as has been so clearly demonstrated by the financial collapse and the lack of federal monitoring by people hired to enforce the regulations. Rick is right, Obama reads real well, and has great writers. (All campaigns had their own writers) By the way, what happened to CHANGE? Today Obama brought out his financial gurus and they’re all from the Clinton era or worse, one worked under Henry Paulson! Looks like business as usual for the democrats.


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