Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Writing lessons from Barack Obama

I was struck last night, and again today, by the quality of Barack Obama's brief speech at Grant Park. I was impressed by its disciplined eloquence and found some lessons for my own writing within its construction.

1) Get right into it. Political speeches (and articles and blog posts and bad short stories and...) often start with ritualistic throat-clearings thank-you's to the Jefferson County Rotarians. Not Obama's. He greeted the crowd, then launched in:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
2) Make it new. We all know that Obama's election was "historic." The TV commentators reminded us every half second. But what does that mean? Obama took an abstraction vitiated by overuse and made it real by telling the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old woman whose adoptive mother was a slave. This, granted, is the same impulse that gave us Joe the Plumber and every grating "real person" at a state of the union speech, but look what Obama does with it:
This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing -- Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
3) Complete the circle(s). The climax of the speech is set up by Ann Nixon Cooper. Obama uses her life to frame the last century of American history and to recapitulate one of his campaign slogans. Returning so strongly to the "Yes we can" of the primaries rhetorically completes the transition from candidate to president. But Obama is working a variation of his theme, not repeating it. Last night, "Yes we can" was less a rallying cry than a promise. The shift suited the moment: exhilaration intermingled with the sobering knowledge of the work ahead. 
And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
Most of us would have been satisfied to close with this new, rounder version of one of our earliest political rallying cries, in the same way that lots of journalists end a story by recapping or extending the story's beginning in some way. But Obama has another move in him, one that works rhetorically and substantively. He turns from Cooper and our past to his daughters and the future:
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time...

1 comment:

Sachin Palewar said...

You are right there. Obama's speech and win are being hailed all over the world. I don't know much about him, but I just hope that his actions will justify his words. That's what I am waiting to see.

This open letter from Dr. Rath in NY Times talks about how Bush and others are trying to prevent Obama from doing what he can. What do you think about it?