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The Speech

When Barack Obama launched into his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was still an obscure state senator from Illinois. By the time he finished 17 minutes later, he had captured the nation’s attention and opened the way for a run at the presidency. A behind-the-scenes look at the politicking, plotting, and preparation that went into Obama’s breakthrough moment

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His moment at hand, Obama waits behind a curtain as Durbin finishes the introduction. Obama spent those final seconds thinking about his parents, grandparents, friends, and supporters back in Illinois. “Lord, let me tell their stories right,” he said to himself.

On a sunny but bitterly cold morning on the second Saturday in February of this year, Obama stood in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence, to officially launch his campaign for president. A crowd of more than 15,000 shivering supporters were on hand to hear Obama’s 21-minute address-a speech that Obama had finished and sent to Axelrod at 4 a.m. only two nights before. Wrapped in a black wool overcoat, his breath visible in the freezing air, Obama delivered a Lincolnesque speech that, though very good, did not garner the same accolades as his keynote address. “I think whenever you make one of those speeches, in certain ways you are always going to be measured against that speech,” explains Axelrod. “That’s just one of the burdens you have to live with. Not every symphony Beethoven wrote was the Ninth.”

So, what made Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention so good?

“I knew he was eloquent,” says Laurence Tribe, the renowned Harvard Law School professor who once hired Obama as his research assistant. “I knew he had passionate beliefs. But I had no idea that he was a magician, rhetorically.”

Obama did deliver a riveting speech at the convention. But there was no magic to it. Interviews with linguists and historians make it clear that Obama combined, simply and masterfully, the tried-and-true rhetorical techniques of effective speechmaking with an instinct for making a political message sing.

While his speech was original in terms of its content and phrasing, he dipped into the same rhetorical well as other great orators who preceded him. Thematically, he borrowed heavily from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy and, more recently, Ronald Reagan, using similar aspirational and optimistic language, flag-waving themes, and rich imagery and references to dreams, particularly the American dream. “Barack Obama talks about ‘the promise of America’ and America standing as ‘a beacon of opportunity,’” says Scott Deatherage, a professor of political communication at Northwestern University. “That’s reminiscent of Reagan, who talked about America as ‘a shining city on a hill.’ Both express a great reverence for the land of opportunity.”

Though his speech bore similarities to those given by great orators who preceded him, the experts I interviewed pointed out how Obama made it his own through his deft use of language. He relied on casual, comfortable words, not lofty rhetoric. He often used the first-person plural, which makes an audience feel like confidants: “We have more work to do . . .”; “We can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life . . .”; “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes. . . .”

He also employed traditional rhetorical techniques, such as metaphor, imagery, anecdote, contrast, and “claptrap,” or language designed to catch applause. “On the language front, he uses all these techniques that you’d find in any great speech-some of the most powerful rhetorical techniques known to man,” says Max Atkinson, a leading public-speaking coach and author of Lend Me Your Ears (Oxford University Press, 2005).

One common device that Obama used was what linguistics experts refer to as “contrasting pairs,” constructions of “not A but B,” or “not A or B, but C.” Examples abound in the spoken-word pantheon. Take Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be,” or John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Obama used this device at least five times in his speech, by Atkinson’s count. One example: “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation-not because of the height of our skyscrapers [not A], or the power of our military [or B], or the size of our economy [or C]; our pride is based on a very simple premise . . . ,” Obama concluded, going on to quote the “all men are created equal” passage of the Declaration of Independence (but D).

Another classic rhetorical tool that Obama drew on was the “rule of three"-packaging words or phrases in lists of three. It’s a device that dates back centuries-"Veni, vidi, vici,” as Julius Caesar said. Similarly, Obama began his convention speech, “On behalf of the great state of Illinois [1], crossroads of a nation [2], Land of Lincoln [3]. . . .”

Repetition has long been a favorite tool of the orator, and Obama used the device effectively: “It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs,” he declared. “The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

Another time-honored rhetorical technique Obama used was the “puzzle/solution,” says Atkinson. Here the speaker presents a problem to his audience and then solves it. At the end of Obama’s speech, after he rattled off a litany of problems-the economic squeeze on the middle class, joblessness, homelessness, and urban violence-Obama offered up his solution: “America! Tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do . . . then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.” (The astute reader will note that this passage also makes use of repetition, the rule of three, and metaphor.)

Says Atkinson: “I don’t have any simple reason why things like saying things in threes or contrasting things actually have the effect that they have-they just do.”

But what about the old maxim: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it?

Here, too, Atkinson, Sheehan, and others agree, Obama’s performance at the convention, after his nervous start, stands out as nearly flawless. His pitch was husky and baritone, not squeaky or shrill. He spoke naturally, not as if he were reading from a teleprompter, and he avoided clumsy pauses and verbal tics such as “uh” and “ah.” And his pacing was measured and rhythmic, building to a rousing climax. “The speech is like a movement of a symphony,” says Sheehan. “He was smart enough to recognize that.”

Obama also surfed the applause masterfully. In several instances, Atkinson notes, Obama repeated the first few words of a sentence or raised his voice to make himself heard over the cheering, in effect rebuffing the applause. “If you carry on speaking after the audience starts applauding, it implies that you weren’t asking for applause,” says Atkinson. “You’re implicitly saying that getting across my message is more important than standing around savoring the plaudits. It creates a favorable impression that, somehow, the speaker is more passionate and committed than your average speaker.”

Although Obama didn’t develop his style of speaking from a church pulpit, at times during the convention speech he resembled a preacher, speeding up and slowing down his pace, raising and lowering his voice, and subtly changing his inflection. At one point, he even threw in a sermonlike rhetorical question: “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” he asked the audience. They roared back: “Hope!”

Obama comes out of a mixed tradition, and he is known to adjust his speaking style when addressing black audiences and white audiences. But he doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not: a progeny of the civil rights movement and Baptist church traditions. “He would not come across as authentic if he tried to be Dr. King,” says Garry Wills, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author, who has studied the speeches and writings of Lincoln and Jefferson, among others. “He can’t talk the talk.”

If anything stands out as negative in Obama’s convention-night delivery, says Atkinson, it’s that his few stabs at humor fell flat. At one point, toward the beginning of his speech, he said: “The true genius of America” is ”. . . a faith . . . that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted.” He paused and then quipped, “At least most of the time"-a reference to the 2000 election debacle in Florida that cost Al Gore the presidency. The line got tepid applause. Atkinson says it would have worked much better had Obama not mixed seriousness with humor so quickly in succession.

Failed jokes aside, not everyone is enamored of Obama, the writer-orator, even when he’s at his best. The conservative commentator Ann Coulter, for one, recently wrote in her column for the weekly magazine Human Events: “Only white guilt could explain the insanely hyperbolic descriptions of Obama’s ‘eloquence.’ His speeches are a run-on string of embarrassing, sophomoric Hallmark bromides.”

Ted McClelland, who covered Obama’s failed 2000 congressional bid for the Chicago Reader, recalls that back then Obama “was not real comfortable or confident as a stump speaker.” McClelland found him wonkish and aloof. “He was stiff and monotonous, and he spoke like a poli-sci professor-a pedantic lecturer who used lots of deadly boring, neutron bomb language.” Even some lines that are now crowd favorites bombed back then, he says. He recalls hearing Obama one afternoon at a South Side church use the line about how people would mispronounce his name, calling him “Alabama” and “Yo’ mama.” Nobody laughed.

McClelland suspects that Obama’s style improved dramatically because of his humiliating loss to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) in that 2000 campaign. After that race, McClelland says, Obama loosened up and found a genuine sense of purpose. “I think he finally has a message,” he says of the new-and-improved Obama. “He finally stood for something more than his own ambition. When he first ran [for Congress] I saw him more as a résumé in search of an office. And he has also learned to at least appear self-deprecating.”

Will Obama’s convention speech survive the scrutiny of time? “It will if [Obama] succeeds,” says Wills, referring to winning the presidency. “That will give it historical importance.” Deatherage says: “I would definitely say it’s one of the best convention speeches. I’m not ready to go so far as to add it to the greatest speeches in political history-that’s probably a bit of a stretch. But to say that this ranks up there with the best convention speeches in history is not a trivial thing.”

* * *

Obama knew immediately that the speech had struck a chord. And at the afterparty feting Obama at a wine bar in Boston’s Downtown Crossing district, a crush of well-wishers practically engulfed him. The next day, when Obama showed up at the FleetCenter, it was more of the same. “I remember walking behind him-it was almost like the wave at a football game,” says Gibbs, referring to all of the rubbernecking as Obama walked around the convention hall. “I think you have to understand,” says Axelrod: “when we began the [Senate] race-he and I-we couldn’t draw a crowd. There was nothing that could prepare you for what would follow that speech in Boston.”

The day after Obama returned home from the Boston convention, he embarked on a five-day, 1,600-mile barnstorming tour of Illinois. “This was the first time that we dealt with crowds that were not 100 or 200 but were 500 or 700,” recalls Gibbs. Heading to a rally for Obama in DeKalb-the heart of Dennis Hastert country, unfriendly territory to Democrats (Hastert was then U.S. House Speaker)-Gibbs remembers thinking, “OK, today is the day we go back to having 100 or 200 people.” Instead, more than 1,000 people showed up. “We drive up and the place goes nuts.”

For Durbin, who joined Obama on much of the tour, that DeKalb rally confirmed what he had already suspected: that Obama was not merely some one-hit wonder who gave a nice speech in front of a friendly audience. “I’m thinking, What’s going on here?” recalls Durbin (now Senate majority whip). “Something’s happened-this is no longer about Barack Obama running for the Senate; this is something bigger.”


Photography: (Image 1) Chris Maddalon/Roll Call Photos; (Image 2) M. Spencer Green/AP photo; (All others) David Katz


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