When President Barack Obama delivered his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, he was standing, symbolically, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and in the footsteps of Dr King. In addition, as has been widely acknowledged, as the first black man to be President of the United States of America, he was standing there as perhaps the ultimate embodiment of Dr King’s dream – even if the dream has only been partially realised.
President Obama’s speech will no doubt provide fodder for discussion for some time yet. One thing is as clear as ever though: just as was recognised when the freshman senator from Illinois gave the Democratic Convention keynote address in 2004, which brought him to national attention, and in his 2007 speech commemorating the 1965 Selma march and his landmark 2008 speech about race, Mr Obama draws a lot of his personal and oratorical inspiration from the vision, cadences and rhetoric of Dr King, as much as he commands by right his own place in a great tradition of American oratory that can be traced back to the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence.
Thanks to television and YouTube, Dr King’s ‘Dream’ speech has been immortalised and is accessible at the click of a mouse. Few can fail to be moved by the full, impassioned flow of his biblical oratory and the historical significance of the moment, but as Mr Obama himself said on Wednesday, “His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”
Mr Obama, however, perhaps owes an equal debt of gratitude to fellow lawyer and another president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, whose influence he has also openly acknowledged. Indeed, when he declared his presidential candidacy in February 2007, he chose to do so in Springfield, Illinois, where “the great emancipator” – Mr Obama’s words – had himself practised law.
Revered by many as the greatest American political orator, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order on January 1, 1863 and his Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, is the best known speech in America along with Dr King’s. It is also possibly the best, short political speech in history.
There is, of course, no YouTube clip of President Lincoln making his dedicatory remarks on the Gettysburg battlefield but there are renderings by Hollywood actors, including Gregory Peck and Sam Waterston, and even by country and western singer, Johnny Cash. There are also recordings by famous people such as General Norman Schwarzkopf and, interestingly, Margaret Thatcher. The appeal of the speech is enduring but, surprisingly, running to a mere 272 words, excluding the salutation, “Fellow countrymen,” it is barely over two minutes long.
What sets the Gettysburg Address apart is Mr Lincoln’s clarity of thought, the power of his conviction and the pithiness of his language. In a time before the sound bite, the speech was laden with memorable phrases, perhaps none more so than “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” According to the Lincoln scholar, Gary Wills, “Lincoln had proved to himself and others the virtues of economy in the use of words. He had put many-layered meaning in lapidary form.” And he was to create a new template for political oratory, so much so that President John F Kennedy’s first instruction to his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, was to study the Gettysburg Address.
The great orators believe in the power of words to persuade and to inspire, to be a force for good and, as Mr Obama would have it, for change. Timing and a sense of history are, of course, critical. And conviction and brevity are priceless gifts. Our current crop of politicians in Guyana and the Caribbean, and their speechwriters, still have much to learn.