Political Rhetoric and Eloquence

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It’s an interesting new day in America. A new voice speaks to us from the White House in Washington. It’s a voice that takes its power from an oral tradition of rhythm and cadence. While eloquence languished among white politicians for fear of sounding elitist or patrician, or simply because their souls lacked poetry, African-American leaders, fostered by great preachers and orators, embraced the human voice as an instrument ideally suited to render truth audible.

Here’s my favorite passage from President Obama’s Inaugural address:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

His eloquence is not confined to prepared speeches. In press conferences and interviews, our new leader has no shame or difficulty with speaking in bold true tones, in complete sentences, and in whole paragraphs. Despite opponents’ efforts to sneer at his eloquence, attempting to make the very word pejorative, he commanded the trust of the nation without talking down to us, without damping down his gift for language. He employs the ancient language arts, codified in the study of rhetoric, without affectation.

His is no hollow rhetoric, but one that is full-bodied. I compare it with Shakespeare. Here is King Henry V wooing the princess of France:

“A good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a black beard will turn white; a curled pate will grow bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow: but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king.”

Obama and Shakespeare know that simple sincerity and eloquence are not mutually exclusive qualities.

We should not underestimate the change that our new leader may bring to American public discourse, and to the very style of American English. What effect will it have upon the American English of our business and corporate leaders, I wonder?   I would not be surprised if Mr. Obama, among the many other miracles we hope for from him, will sharpen our palate for richer language, born in the heart, nurtured by soul and brain, and conveyed on a generous breath by a resonant voice to a people starved by politics without poetry.

I, for one, will be listening attentively for these changes.