Just Words

Whether from pastors or presidents, can speeches really inspire change? A little-known Massachusetts senator thought so almost 50 years ago, and nine days from now, another previously obscure senator will try again.

'Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.' Barack Obama "Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well." Barack Obama (Photograph by William Thomas Cain)
By Charles P. Pierce
January 11, 2009
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It was a bright cold morning in 1961, and Theodore Sorensen was worried. From the steps of the US Capitol, he could look out beyond the podium, where a new young president was delivering an inaugural address for which Sorensen had been the guiding intelligence. The speech was the culmination of a hundred other speeches that the new president had delivered over the course of the campaign, and Sorensen had been the guiding intelligence behind all of them.

He and the young, inexperienced senator from Massachusetts had crisscrossed the country, talking to audiences in the snows of New Hampshire and Wisconsin and in the coal-dust-soured rain of West Virginia and in the bright winter sun of Florida. After a while, they started having the same thoughts. They shared a vocabulary and a syntax. They used the same words to talk about the same things. It was always about starting anew, starting fresh, abandoning the tired nostrums and exhausted politics of the recent past. It was always about things that were fresh and modern and sleek and shiny. It was always about a departure. It was always about change. And by the time they got to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, they even had a name for it. They called it the New Frontier.

They pushed this same theme all throughout the general election campaign. In September, to quell the raging doubts about the candidate's Catholicism, they went to Houston to talk to a convention of Baptist ministers. They couched their speech in the language of departure, redefining America in the speech as a monument to its loftiest ideals, rather than its grittiest political realities. And the candidate said:

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

And the doubts were allayed, or at least enough of them were allayed to get the campaign and the candidate through one of the narrowest elections in history. And that was how Sorensen found himself on the steps of the Capitol on January 20, 1961, looking out beyond the new president toward the crowd. He didn't think the speech was going well at all.

"For the first third of it, I was worried," Sorensen recalls now, nearly 50 years later. "I didn't see any real reaction to it from the crowd." Then, however, President John F. Kennedy, hatless in the glacial January morning, rounded into the passage beginning, "Let the word go forth, from this time and place," and then talked about torches passing and paying prices and bearing burdens and asking not what your country could do for you, and Sorensen saw a great anxious movement begin among the people arrayed in front of him, and he knew that they had the crowd. And if they had the crowd, they had the country, and if they had the country, they had history for the taking.

"An inaugural address is by definition a defining moment for any new president," explains Sorensen, who very early on in the most recent presidential campaign committed himself to the long-shot candidacy of another young and inexperienced senator, this one from Illinois, because he had heard in Barack Obama's rhetoric the distant, unmistakable echoes of the speeches he'd written almost five decades earlier. There had not been another campaign since 1960 in which sheer political rhetoric -- as opposed to catchy slogans ("Bring Us Together") and empty catch phrases ("Where's the Beef?") and inspirational platitudes ("It's Morning in America") -- played such a crucial role in defining not merely the terms of the debate, but the entire campaign. Polished addresses suddenly trumped the necessity of feeding neatly tailored sound bites into the voracious maw of the 24-hour news cycle. Big speeches were once again anticipated events. As Kennedy had done in his speech to the ministers in Houston, in which he tried to persuade them that, no, there would be no hot line installed connecting the Oval Office to the papal residence, Obama went to Philadelphia to persuade America -- and especially white America -- that he did not subscribe to some of the more inflammatory racial views of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and, in doing so, gave the most profound speech on race relations that any politician had given in more than 40 years:

"It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper. In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

He spoke in the language of national racial unity the way Kennedy had spoken of religious diversity, as an essential part of the country's better nature. He positioned racial division as something retrograde, a part of an old order that he was seeking to transcend. And when, in the aftermath, some political wise guys latched onto an anecdote he had told about his grandmother's fear of passing black teenagers on the street, the attempt at a gotcha moment had no legs at all.

"I was, well, intrigued, by a lot of what was said during the campaign, in which Obama's rhetorical skills were derided as unimportant, as 'just words,' " Sorensen muses. "I really didn't know how to address that, how to talk about it. 'Just words' is how a president manages to operate. 'Just words' is how he engages the spirit of progress for the country."

Oddly enough, in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary last February, the campaign of Hillary Clinton attempted to make that same argument against Barack Obama, who answered it with a speech he gave to the annual dinner of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "Just words?" he asked. " 'I have a dream.' Just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.' Just words? 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Just words?"

At the time, there was a brief kerfuffle -- also stoked by the perennially ham-handed Clinton campaign -- in which Obama was accused of copping this riff from the speeches of Governor Deval Patrick, who was one of Obama's closest friends and earliest supporters. That controversy died aborning as well. It seemed that the snark-ridden carping of the modern political age was suddenly taking place at a frequency the country could no longer hear. It was as though the country was learning a way of speaking to itself that it had long ago forgotten.

In nine days, Barack Obama will step behind a podium in front of the Capitol the same way that Kennedy did on that frigid January morning. It will be a speech freighted with both giddy expectations and grim historical analogies. Obama began his campaign by summoning up the vision of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address, the one that contained the appeal to "the better angels of our nature" while the country gathered its demons for the outbreak of the Civil War. A severe economic crisis has placed upon Obama burdens similar to those that accompanied Franklin D. Roosevelt to the podium in 1933, when he talked about fear itself. Yet the themes of Obama's political journey have been most similar to those sounded by Theodore Sorensen and John Kennedy in 1961, but with one important difference: It is still about changing the country, but in its rhetoric, which was its most truly innovative element, the Obama campaign was about changing the country back.

Kennedy's inaugural address was a call for a new beginning. Obama's approach always has been to call the country back. Kennedy's speech called for the beginning of a new country and a new world. Obama is calling for a new politics through which, he says, we can reclaim those parts of the country's greatness that we have lost or deliberately abandoned. Some of these are the component parts of what was known at the time as the New Frontier, and at least one of the things from that period that we lost or abandoned was the notion that a speech can rise above the endless jabbering that is so much of how we do our politics today, that "just words" can move people beyond themselves. In this, it can be argued, in the way he has chosen to speak to the country about how and why it must change, Barack Obama is the last New Frontiersman.

"That's very good," says Theodore Sorensen, and you can almost hear him twinkling over the telephone. "You should be a speechwriter."

We all should have seen it coming. We live in a sound-bitten age. Our political dialogue is the province of people shouting at each other on cable television or cracking wise on talk radio. We text without vowels. We blog without verbs. We twitter and tweet. We communicate so fast that we leave the alphabet far behind, let alone the rules of grammar. We talk to each other more, and in more different ways, and yet we say less and less than we ever did. It is no surprise that this acceleration has produced a reaction, a hunger for the kind of slow-rolling gravitas that you find in the best of the country's public rhetoric. Under all the white noise, the country wanted to talk to itself like a grown-up again.

"Rhetoric is one of the great pleasures of life," says Matthew Myer Boulton, an assistant professor of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School. "I read somewhere that spoken-word events have had a little renaissance. You could argue that, because so much of our lives has become electronic, it might make that pleasure that much sweeter."

Small wonder, then, that there emerged in recent years a vogue for studying speeches and the people who wrote them, and the people who delivered them. A number of books were written about individual speeches, and many of them joined the Founding Father of the Month Club on the history-laden bestseller lists. Garry Wills showed the inner workings of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Ronald White did the same for Lincoln's second inaugural. Davis Houck examined FDR's first inaugural, and Thurston Clarke promoted JFK's only one as "the speech that changed America." Speechwriters like Peggy Noonan and Michael Gerson became columnists at newspapers seeking to tap into whatever magic the two of them had wrought for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, despite the fact that they've proven to be manifestly better at writing words for other people to deliver. (Noonan's career as a columnist is probably highlighted by a piece in which she speculated that God had sent dolphins to rescue Elian Gonzalez during the boy's escape from Cuba.) Even NBC's The West Wing originally was supposed to focus on Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn, the speechwriting team in the fictitious Bartlett White House. And though the show inevitably succumbed to the inescapable dramatic gravity of the president himself, which is pretty much the way every actual White House works, the two speechwriters still had moments in which they knuckled recalcitrant congressmen or fought back against political opponents in a fashion that was easily recognized by viewers familiar with the doctors on ER or the cops on NYPD Blue. Speechwriters as action heroes! Who knew?

This is not mere nostalgia, a gauzy wish for everything just . . . to . . . slow . . . down, so we all can catch our breath and think. It was a very real desire for words that could match the formidable challenges that seemed to be rising almost daily all around us. Not for no reason did George W. Bush -- a mediocre public speaker on his best days, which have not exactly been frequent of late -- achieve heights of eloquence only during those shellshocked weeks in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He rose not to the challenges of the events themselves but to the expectations and desires of his national audience. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Bush told the country:

"America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.' This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

That moment was there, briefly, and then it was gone. So much of what was done in response was done without even an attempt at an adequate public explanation that the administration lost the ability to rally support behind its programs, and by operating as extensively as it did by executive fiat, the administration appeared to scorn even the necessity of doing so. As the memory of the attacks faded and the wars launched in response to them dragged on and the economy tanked and his poll numbers plummeted faster than the NASDAQ, Bush found that he'd lost his voice because he'd abandoned his audience. The national dialogue stopped being a conversation. After a while, Bush simply stopped giving significant speeches at all.

Barack Obama stepped into this vacuum. He did so first at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when his keynote address about there only being one America, though monumentally disproved in its immediate moment by the success of the divisive campaign run against Senator John Kerry, resonated both beyond the hall and through the years. His words set him free, but they also set him apart from the competition. When he marshaled his rhetoric in support of his own candidacy four years later, it already was an indelible part of his political persona, like John McCain's biography or Hillary Clinton's resume. People came out to hear him speak just to come out and hear him speak, whether they supported his candidacy or not. His speeches -- like the one on race in Philadelphia -- were more than mere tactical political exercises, although they surely were that. There also was an element of performance to them that exasperated his rivals and confounded the pundits -- Chris Matthews's assertion on television that listening to Obama "made a thrill run up my leg" may well be the single weirdest piece of political analysis ever uttered -- but which resonated with the audiences that grew almost by the day.

In this, and in how he constructed his speeches, then, Obama was operating deeply in the traditions of American public rhetoric. Political speeches used to be vehicles of mass entertainment. In 1863, Edward Everett was in such demand as a public speaker that he was begged to give one of his lengthy orations on the opening of the cemetery that had been created on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Everett responded by delivering a two-hour performance that left his audience spellbound. (President Lincoln also appeared and delivered what the program called "brief remarks.") Obama's popularity on the stump was a modern version of what Everett did, and that popularity had its basis in the fact that so much of Obama's rhetoric derived its power from the form and style of public speaking with which Americans were most familiar -- the homilies that so many of us heard growing up in church.

"When he was a professor," says Boulton, "Obama is said to have wondered aloud why there wasn't this tradition of rhetoric in recent American history. One of the things Obama has a sense for, and he did this in his announcement, when he went to Springfield and called upon us as a divided house to come together, was to use what we call the 'typological use of language.' Take a figure like a Daniel or a Moses, and the preacher will get the listener to think about presenting this typological term in the present. Obama didn't do that as the new Moses, he did it as the new Lincoln. The mythological Lincoln, because that's how national history works. Our historical mythology is the shorthand for how we understand ourselves.

"There has never been a kind of hermetically sealed church rhetoric and a hermetically sealed political rhetoric. One of the unique things about the history of American rhetoric is that the train runs both ways. When people say that Obama is preaching -- and you have to go back to Dr. Martin Luther King to find a figure who's like this -- they sense that he's doing civic discourse, but he's using the cadences of a preacher. And preaching is fundamentally the interpretation of ancient traditions, parchments and scrolls. Obama is able to do that with the parchments of American life, like the Constitution, or cherished figures like Lincoln and the documents associated with him. In Philadelphia, he gave a sermon on the Constitution -- 'A More Perfect Union.' In a sermonic way, he was saying, 'Here's the next step for us today.' "

In addition, Obama's rhetoric comes most directly from a specific homiletic source -- namely, the preaching traditions of the black Protestant churches. "Let me put it this way," explains Dale P. Andrews, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of homiletics and pastoral theology at Boston University. "I think Obama understands the nature of rhetorical strategies. He's not called to perfectly replicate a preaching event, because there's a difference between a pulpit and political platform, although there always should be some sort of exchange between the two."

Andrews occasionally preaches himself at the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church in Boston, and what he describes as "the preaching moment" comes awfully close to what Obama seems able to achieve with his audiences -- that point where the speaker and the listener are engaged in a conversation of meaning with each other, even though only one of them is actually talking out loud. From the pulpit or the podium, one person speaks, and that person feels that reply even more than he hears it. The sharing of the moment is a deeper connection between the speaker and his audience than are the audible Amens or the roar of the applause, and sometimes it catches even Andrews by surprise, because he freely admits that actually delivering a homily that he's crafted is the hardest part of his job.

"In the preaching moment," Andrews explains, "there is a liminal moment in which it dawns on you standing there that, yes, there is something more going on here that I did not anticipate. When that happens, there's no place in the world I'd rather be. Sometimes you can feel awfully alone up there. It depends on the community, and sometimes on the event itself. You feed off the congregation, because black preaching is so dialogical. The affirmation in that dialogue is the place where you locate revelation."

On four specific occasions -- his speech in Boston in 2004, the speech announcing his candidacy, the speech on race in Philadelphia, and, most recently, his speech on election night to the huge crowd in Grant Park in Chicago -- Obama has seemed to come close to this kind of preaching moment, albeit in one of the most secular contexts there is. He was speaking, but under the cheering, there was an undeniable conversation going on. It sounded like everyone was talking about getting back to something that had been lost, or thrown away.

Like Ted Sorensen, Jon Favreau, a bright kid out of North Reading High School, started out as an issues wonk, doing community-service projects at Holy Cross, where he rose to valedictorian, and doing an internship on Capitol Hill. Only after working on John Kerry's campaign in 2004 did Favreau meet and begin writing speeches for Barack Obama, and, like Sorensen and John Kennedy, the two men worked so closely together in so many places for so long around the country that Favreau soon found his voice indistinguishable from Obama's. The elder Sorensen became a fan of the young (now 27) Favreau's work, and Favreau found himself gradually slipping into an existing historical tradition of presidential speechwriting and the stakes that come with any inaugural address, but especially with this particular one.

Barack Obama has established a record of public oratory that is daunting enough; more than anything else, his rhetoric itself defines him as a politician. Moreover, his entire campaign was ostensibly dedicated to the formidable task of changing the entire direction of the country, and of the way its people engaged one another as citizens. The pressure on Obama to deliver, first, a great speech, and then the change that must come lest the inspiration prove nothing but "just words," is almost entirely self-imposed, on himself, and on Jon Favreau. A bad speech by Barack Obama would count for more than a bad speech from anyone else. It would echo, dully, through history. Obama has achieved, largely through his oratory, and the response that it engendered, a fragile historical moment that he dare not bungle away. That is the standard he's set for himself.

"I've read a lot of inaugural addresses," Favreau explains. "I do it to get a sense of history and to find out what those other moments are like, and how the presidents and their writers worked together, what words they used to describe those moments. You have to make sure that his language sounds like it's right for the times. You can keep the historical allusions, but not overdo them. You have to find a balance there.

"What we have to do is talk about similar themes to what he said in the campaign and what we laid out in the election-night speech. What we have to do is describe what the moment is now and how we got here and why this is unique in history and where we need to go from here and why we need to go forward together. He's got to do it, too, because he's going to need the participation and support of the American people."

There will be another podium in front of the Capitol in nine days, and the day may be cold, or it may not be. Jon Favreau will stand where Ted Sorensen stood and look out, anxiously, out beyond the podium and over the head of another skinny, young, and inexperienced president, out into a sea of restless, expectant faces, to see if the words flow through the crowd like a current through a sluggish river, to see if he can feel the conversation begin, the one that Dale Andrews can feel from the pulpit. The revelation, where one man is giving a speech and, in responding to it, the country learns to talk to itself again, the way it used to, when the word went forth from that time and place.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at

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