I read Ian McDonald’s piece titled ‘Leaders and Language’ (Sunday Stabroek, Feb. 22nd). There is indeed “a close correlation between the inspiring use of language and getting great deeds done”. And yet, I think that in any speech, ‘delivery’ plays an important part. One has to be able to capture and hold the audience’s attention throughout. In that
respect, President Obama has much in common with Guyana’s Forbes Burnham – gifted orators both.
Barack Obama uses his public speaking skills to good effect. Among other things, he pauses in the right places, and gestures appropriately, using suitable body language. Experienced trial lawyers, preachers and actors are all capable of demonstrating this ability at the drop of a hat. Watch old black-and-white movies that include a courtroom scene. In some, the lawyer, in wig and gown, grips the top of the gown with one hand, with the other he stabs the air with a pencil, turns, swivels and then makes his point. Showmanship at its best and we sit, enthralled, following every move. Lawyers turned politicians carry these practices forward.
President Obama is said to have a speechwriter in the person of 27-year old Jon Favreau; in fact, this chap is credited with coining the catchphrase “Yes, we can”.
The President is supposed to have ‘perfected a writing process’ with this young man over a 4-year period. Ben Rhodes is another name mentioned as a speechwriter. It would appear that political speeches are not a one-man effort, though the person who delivers the speech has the final say! A good example of this is the one Dr McDonald describes as an “indisputably historic speech …..on race ….A Perfect Union”. In a transcript titled ‘Barack Obama’s Speech on Race’, dated March 18, 2008, the speech is introduced with the words “…the text as prepared for delivery of Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia, as provided by his campaign.” It starts: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” and ends with the sentence: “And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.” Impressive stuff. British Prime Ministers also have speechwriters.
People at the top are very busy networking and making decisions, so it seems that they routinely assign first drafts to competent assistants. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, himself a lawyer, was able to draw on the speechwriting talents of one or more of his supporting staff. He probably then refined the speeches and delivered them in such a fashion that some of them became masterpieces. (Incidentally, the funeral
speech made by the late Princess of Wales’s brother at Westminster Abbey is generally regarded as one such gem).
It should not be surprising that Abraham Lincoln has been an inspiration to Barack Obama. Maybe the spirit of Lincoln moves in him. I recently read a few titbits taken from an article written in 2004 by C Stone Brown, based on a book by Dr Leroy Vaughn, about black people in history. Abe Lincoln is described as having “dark skin and coarse hair”, his mother allegedly coming from an Ethiopian tribe. He was nicknamed ‘Abraham Africanus the First’ by his political opponents, and cartoons
were drawn depicting him as a negro. Further, Thomas Lincoln, his “father of record” was sterile and could not beget children!
President Obama presumably takes his predecessor’s alleged predicament very seriously, probably regarding him as his ideal, using him as a role model, trying to follow in his footsteps. We all wish him well.