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New York Post

 

Return to Oratory: Why O Can Lead

January 21, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

O's symbolic status lets us hear him in a special way.

THE amazing thing about President Obama's inaugural ad dress was that America was sitting rapt listening to, of all things, an oration. Not just a "speech."

All presidents have to "make a speech" when sworn in. But how long has it been since an inaugural address has been an oration—a piece of rhetoric that we listen to as a nation, the kind that one recalls with Aaron Copland music on the soundtrack: It's been almost 50 years—John Kennedy's, with its "Ask not what your country can do for you."

That was the last gasp of the days when being a public figure meant at least faking "addresses." The change began in the '60s, when America fell in love with informality: As men stopped wearing hats and jackets, the language dressed down as well.

If you asked Americans five years ago when they'd last heard a real "speech"—a statement rendered with especial grace and power that they wouldn't have minded having a printed copy of—they typically cited Mario Cuomo's 1984 "City on a Hill" oration.

Today, we can all place the last time we heard an oration as last April—Obama's speech on race in the wake of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Suddenly, here was a presidential candidate responding to criticism not with a press conference, but with a take-home oration. He wrote it himself and couched it in a bird's-eye-view historical, even didactic, tone.

It was one of the most peculiar and marvelous moments in the chaotic splendor of the 2008 campaign—and a preview for yet another oration when Obama won. His Grant Park address was, again, an elegiac summons of the sort that had all of us at the edge of our seats—in a way that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bushes I and II and Clinton never ventured.

Reagan? A magnetic speechifier. But did his speeches speak to all of America? And apart from the savory lines ("Tear down this wall"), which of his speeches do we recall as for the ages in their entirety?

And now, when there is no other public figure in our nation from whom we seek oratory, comes an inaugural address worthy of study—a deliberate descendant of the oratory of Lincoln.

As to Cuomo's speech, 1984 was about the last time that a middle-aged white man could pull off true oratory without seeming pretentious. What white 40-something could orate to all of America as Obama can now? The nation's openness to Obama's orating—i.e., OK, here he goes, shh, this is going to be deep!—is of a part with what helped get him elected: his color.

Yes: Legions of whites see him as a symbol of America's having gotten beyond the hideousness of our racial past, of having healed the most grievous division of our history. This symbolic status makes us hear Obama in a special way, as speaking above the fundamentally dress-down and speak-down nature of post-countercultural America—without seeming phony.

We can drink in his words as music rather than dismissing him as merely mimicking the lofty language of a distant time, because we see an ineluctable justice in the sheer fact of his having become our leader.

We assume that, having fashioned himself as an achieving adult despite being someone who not long ago would have been relegated to society's margins, he has something to tell us about real work, about making the best of the not-so-good—that is, about so much of what being American has always meant.

That modern Americans are more likely to hear oratory—i.e., heightened and inspiring use of language—in the unfocused cynicism of angry rap lyrics than in what any non-rapper says will not show us at our best to historians. Barack Obama's inaugural address, bringing us back to singing of ourselves as inhabitants of a flawed but great nation, will.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/01212009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/return_to_oratory__why_o_can_lead_151093.htm

 

 
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