Regardless of your contribution to Barack Obama’s approval rating, you have to admit one thing: The man can give a speech. And to the delight of professional wordslingers the world over, toiling under deadlines and character counts, he tends to write much of each address himself (like another fellow who’s spent some time on Pennsylvania Avenue used to say, he “feels our pain”).
To figure out why the 44th president’s speeches have such an explosive impact on listeners across the party spectrum, seasoned political analysts Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer tackled the impressive task of parsing his language. Their forthcoming book, Power in Words, walks us slowly through 18 of candidate Obama’s major addresses during his ascent to the White House.
It’s a fairly wonky read, as you’d imagine, with plenty of citations and endnotes and an occasionally excruciating level of detail: “After a few days in the country spent traveling with a twelve-car motorcade, Obama and his entourage flew to the rural area of Kolego in the Siaya District of Nyanza Province, about 175 miles east of Nairobi.” But Berry and Gottheimer temper their academic approach with lively anecdotes about backstage tension and last-minute rewrites, as well as insight into the symbiotic relationship between Obama and his head speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not the guy behind Cowboys & Aliens—look for his younger, prettier Googleganger).
Here’s what I learned from their efforts: The president’s political savvy and famous preacherlike cadence play a big role in his ability to stun a crowd, but delivery only goes as far as what’s in the package. Berry and Gottheimer close every chapter with the full text of the speech they’ve just analyzed, and the placement is apt. It drives home the force of the words themselves—clean and precise and startlingly emotional, even on a two-dimensional page. You may or may not agree with them, but they’re impossible to ignore.
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