Before Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the most popular speech by far in the United States was George Washington’s presidential farewell speech of 1796. But in November 1863 Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address surpassed Washington’s speech in terms of popularity to become America’s most quoted and loved speech.
Later on we had both John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural speech and Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial that were to capture the imagination of many both within the United States and abroad. As Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s renowned speech writer, wrote, “When big, serious, thoughtful things must be said, then big, serious, thoughtful speeches must be given.” So the question arises, will Barack Obama’s speech at America’s largest convention centre, McCormick Place in Chicago, on the 10th January last, be remembered as one of history’s memorable speeches?
Unlike recent former presidents like Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, who chose the Oval Office, with no immediate live audience, to deliver their farewell addresses, Obama chose a venue for his adoring and supporting live audience to deliver his final speech as president. Obama was, of course, playing on his own skills as a powerful orator to leave a legacy, and obviously he felt he had something ‘big and thoughtful to say’.
As he walked onto the podium with his easy and confident gait and wide smile, his eyes making swift contact with his audience, he made a great impression. This fanfare roused their enthusiasm which, in turn, created the atmosphere he wanted. Then he used his humour to settle them into a listening mode after a long and sustained applause with the quips, “You can tell that I’m a lame duck, because nobody is following instructions”. Then he said, as the audience laughed, “We’re on live TV here, I’ve got to move,” and he continued with a smile before the audience finally took their seats. This was intended to be a night to be remembered.
It is worth mentioning just three rhetorical aspects of this speech briefly:
- Firstly, Obama combined his gestures with certain words which superbly emphasised them. An example was how he held both hands raised so that they were in clear view of the audience with the palms facing outwards saying, “We can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem”.
- Secondly, while then putting a closed fist on his chest, he continued, “But to simply deny the problem (it) betrays the essential spirit of this country”. In terms of non-verbal communication it was a master show.
- Thirdly, there was his masterly use of the ‘tricolon’, which means in classical rhetoric using three parallel words, phrases or clauses in a sentence for emphasis. The most famous tricolon in history is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s “Veni, vidi, vici”. Here are just two examples he used: “We remain the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most respected nation on earth”; and “In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet.”
Finally, he personalised his message in the praise he meted out for both his wife and the vice president, Joe Biden. This was something that went to the hearts of his adoring audience.
The speech was an elegantly worded warning about the future and followed the same pattern and message as his first speech in Chicago in 2008 when he was first elected. His message of then as now was of hope and change. His 2008 slogan “Yes we can” was merely amplified to “Yes we did” in 2017. But there is little hope that it will be remembered in the same way as Kennedy’s or King’s speeches are, as it lacked a great thought that had to be said, a public gesture that the majority agreed with and not just those present, or the introduction of a new era. He reemphasised his message of 2008 of hope and change and warned against the country’s broken politics, and its stark social and economic inequalities. His audience agreed with him but was interested only in the continuation of the Obama-cum-Clinton legacy although many who were not at McCormick Place obviously felt that eight years of Obama was enough. The speech did nothing to unite a divided country.
Carmine Gallo wrote, “The words, the structure, the delivery, the gestures, and the personalization all came together in Obama’s final speech to the nation”. Despite Gallo’s lavish praise, the speech will not leave the legacy it was intended to leave, and it will not be memorised by future generations. Even now, just over a week after the event, it has faded into the annals of history for the great majority of people, although some teachers of classical rhetoric may find it worth referring to because of the excellent use of some rhetorical devices.