Thank goodness for great rhetoric

Well - what a night! I gave in to sleep after listening to McCain's gracious concession speech. Woke up a few hours later, surprisingly fresh, to the sound of Obama's acceptance speech on Radio 4. It's interesting to listen to this morning's analysis and see how Obama's victory becomes a launch pad for a discussion for...well...just about everything.

One of the most astonishing criticisms of Obama during the campaign was the 'mere rhetoric' line that even last night, as the electoral map of America changed before our eyes, was still in the mouths of his critics. Both speeches last night demonstrated the importance of political rhetoric. McCain showed true character and grace in defeat. Obama, once again, delivered a stunning speech that found words that not only celebrated the moment, but mined its significance. The climax of the speech weaves together the life story of one individual woman, 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper, with the story of modern America. A moment of rhetorical beauty. Rhetoric matters because ideas matter. Most politicians would happily settle for a mere dusting of Obama's ability to tell a political story and use words to inspire and create change. Here's hoping he continues to raise the bar for political discource.

Here are some extracts from Obama's acceptance speech: (see below for video of complete speech)

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference."

"It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states."

"It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America. It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

"But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.
I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston. It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy…… who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep.

It drew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on doors of perfect strangers, and from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from the Earth. This is your victory."

"This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight’s about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can. At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.

And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.
Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made? This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.

This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America."


November 5, 2008 at 12:58:00 PM GMT BethB said...

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy

I am crying again

November 5, 2008 at 1:21:00 PM GMT Mark McDowell said...

Stuberto, I am not quite as positive as it appears you are, not necessarily because of the candidate or the quality of the rhetoric. I tend to find myself aligned with old Noam Chomsky on the matter, who said that there is only one party in america and that's the business party, which has 2 factions. Now, granted, Obama wants to flatten out captalism's prickly parts but the system is still in place and it's still as ugly and voracious as ever. Maybe he can slow the juggernaut down a bit... who knows. How depressing is that!

November 5, 2008 at 4:50:00 PM GMT John Self said...

"Mere rhetoric" is always a good one to hear, because it means the opposition are frustrated that their candidate is trailing and they haven't got anything substantial to say. It ties in with the crazed (though clearly true for some) notion that people want to vote for someone like them, 'the sort of guy you could have a beer with', and the criticism of 'elites'. Well, in my dictionary 'elite' means 'the best', and I don't want to be governed by someone like me - I want to be governed by an elite!

The Onion had a nice take on this in their story about Obama making a huge gaffe by saying "I would make a bad president."

However, a CNN poll taken moments after Obama's speech revealed that the candidate's misstep may have simply gotten lost amid the 24-hour news cycle. Though most citizens said they would prefer a candidate who thinks he'd be a good president, 23 percent said they would still vote for someone who thinks he would make an okay president. Furthermore, 35 percent of citizens said they would vote for a nominee who promised to be a serviceable, or even a so-so, president.

Forty-two percent of citizens polled said that, at this point, a "just plain bad" president would also be good enough.

"I am more certain than ever that I will vote for Obama," Windham, NH resident James Kilner said. "This is the first time I have really connected with a candidate, mainly because I think I would make a pretty bad president, too."

Mark, it's true that both US parties would be considered right of centre by our standards, but Obama has one of the most liberal voting records of any senator (as the Republicans were keen to keep pointing out, and which made me love him a little more each time they did), and it's pointless to pretend that Chomsky's wishes are going to hold sway or that any electable US president is going to tamper with the capitalist model, not least because (a) he has to govern for everyone, and the US is an almost evenly divided nation politically, and (b) he wants to get re-elected.

Obama's mere rhet- I mean, speech, was brilliant. Next volume of Guardian Great Speeches of the 21st Century, here he comes.

November 6, 2008 at 9:13:00 AM GMT andmilestogobeforeisleep said...

Apparently it was Plato who started this whole 'mere rhetoric' thing off (guess what I was learning in school this week!) - he thought it was more about spin and skewed towards those who had power... as a wise man once said - there is nothing new under the sun