President Obama gave his second inaugural address today. I watched the speech with a couple friends of mine. After the speech one of my companions turned to me and asked me what I thought about it rhetorically. I told him that I thought it was one of the best speeches Obama has ever given, and that the speech writer’s use of alliteration was particularly clever and effective. My friend was surprised and told me that he hadn’t noticed any alliteration. This, of course, just proves the writer’s true mastery. As Aristotle says, “Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. (the latter is persuasive, the former the opposite; for people become resentful, as at someone plotting against them, just as they are at those adulterating wines.)”1 And so, I thought it might be fun to take a look at two of my favorite sentences from the speech:
(1) “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.” (4:18)
On paper, the alliteration here doesn’t look like much. Watch the video, however, and you’ll see that this phrase is clearly meant to stand out. For one thing it’s been placed at the end of the period (“period” in rhetoric meaning the completion of a thought, not the punctuation point, although they often coincide). For another thing the alliteration itself is just so good. In addition to the initial ‘c’ sound, the consonant clusters ‘nst’ and ‘nts’ in “constants” resonate very nicely with the ‘ct’ in “character.” I could say “constants in our character” all day without getting tired of the sound!
What is Obama doing here? In case you missed it, “constants in our character,” is a rather clever allusion to Martin Luther King, particularly this line from the “Dream Speech”: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”2 This same line was more directly referenced in the first paragraph of Obama’s speech, as a description of “the promise of our democracy”: “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.” MLK is all over Obama’s public speeches. In fact, if you want a fun evening at home, read MLK’s I Have a Dream, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the “Preamble” of the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and then watch any major Obama speech, and try to count all the references to these texts.
(2) We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. (13:45)
Aren’t the ‘S’s lovely? In the “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall” phrase, we see an excellent example of the classic use of alliteration to emphasize and set apart a tricolon. That the speech write managed to come up with three place names that symbolize their respective civil rights movements and all start with ‘s’ is quite remarkable. I wonder how long it took him? Also notice the rhyming of “Stonewall” and “Mall.” Not terribly significant, but I do think it helps with the rhythm of delivery. This is just a fabulous sentence. Read it aloud to yourself and feel the swell of noble sentiment.
One last word and why I think this speech is one of Obama’s best: Cato is quoted as saying “Rem tene, verba sequunter” (Grasp the idea, the words will follow). This speech displays the unmistakable signs of careful craft, hardly Cato’s ideal, but when you hear it, you can easily grasp Obama’s idea, so much so that the craft disappears entirely behind the thought. That is very difficult to do.
Here’s the full address:
1. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 3.2.2.