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Oratorical Good Old Boy

At the start of my teaching career, on a moment’s notice when the instructor who’d taught the course for 30 years was laid up with a heart attack, I gave a summer course for advanced high-school students on “The Art of Speech.” Ph.D.’s in comp/rhet were rare as hen’s teeth then, and “rhetoric” still referred mostly to oratory. Scrambling for materials (my colleague’s notes were unavailable, and he used no textbook), I read Aristotle and Lanham in the hope of appearing to know what I was talking about. I dredged up scratchy audiotapes of Martin Luther King and JFK. Of course, we pored over Lincoln and Shakespeare’s Antony. Looking back, I wish I’d had Dashiell Bennett’s recent scoop in The Atlantic to launch the summer term. Bennett got hold of the original text of Bill Clinton’s address to the Democratic National Convention and matched it against the address Clinton actually gave. And folks (I know now to say “folks” as often as possible, and always in preference to “people”), even though I know nothing more about classical rhetoric than I did that summer, my eyes have been opened to genius.

Read the speech and the edits yourselves; you could teach a whole course on them. Repetition and apposition, colloquialisms, demonstrative adjectives in place of articles—the substitutions are myriad, specific, and almost always improvements over the original. I’ll just pick over a few points and invite readers to add to the discussion.

Clinton’s speechwriter did insert a number of rhetorical devices into the speech. One of them was the colloquial “You see. … ” But “you see,” by the second night of the convention, was Michelle Obama’s trademark. On every occasion where it popped up in Clinton’s speech, he replaced it with a device that became the leitmotif of his own speech. Here’s an example, with the bold type mine.

Original: When Congressman Ryan looked into the TV camera and attacked President Obama’s  “biggest coldest power play” in raiding Medicare, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. You see, that $716-billion is exactly the same amount of Medicare savings Congressman Ryan had in his own budget. 

Amended by Clinton: Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as, quote the biggest coldest power play,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Because that $716-billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings he has in his own budget. You got to get one thing—it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did. So … now, you’re having a good time, but this is getting serious, and I want you to listenIt’s important, because a lot of people believe this stuff.

This call to “listen” to what’s “important” is the chief emendation Clinton makes to a text that might otherwise, rhetorically, echo what not only the First Lady but also the other pundits had been saying from the platform. Even more brilliant is the addition of the “some brass” line, which will haunt our impressions of Paul Ryan henceforward.

But the “want you to listen; it’s important” call gets threaded into almost every paragraph of the speech and amplified as the speech goes on. Clinton adds, among other asides, “Let me ask you something”; “Think about that”; “Let’s think about it”; “I am telling you”; “Don’t you ever forget”; “Wait, you need to know”; “You all need to listen carefully”; and perhaps the clincher, “You need to tell every voter where you live about this.” It’s a teacher’s approach and more: It’s the guy grabbing you by the shirt collar, demanding that you hear him and that you then go out and spread the Word. Did the rhetorical tic annoy some people? Undoubtedly. But it’s what most will remember from the speech—not the wonky specifics on job creation and debt reduction, but the call to listen, to pay attention, because this guy is telling you (in another of his reiterated additions) “what really happened.”

One other set of observations, and then let’s open up the floor. Blogs like Lingua Franca get a lot of discussion over use of the passive voice, with our tattered pals Strunk & White receiving their usual lashings for a) failing to acknowledge the potential of the passive and b) employing it themselves. We also get plenty of discussion about the grammatical passive versus what might be called “passive writing,” really a euphemism for flabby prose. Let’s look at what Clinton does, with two examples (boldface again mine, and it doesn’t do justice to the changes):

Original: A man who … put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs were created and saved, there were still millions more waiting, trying to feed their children.

Amended: A man who … put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs he saved or created, there were still millions more waiting, worried about feeding their own kids.

First, Clinton changes the passive “were created and saved” (with “saved” the latter and more memorable word) to the active “he saved or created” (with “created” in the more memorable slot). Second, he replaces the present participle “trying” with the past participle “worried,” which works also as an active verb (i.e., “they worried’) and focuses our attention on the worry itself. My final example pulls a similar trick:

Original: It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty, and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure, and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.

Amended: It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics. Why? Because poverty, discrimination, and ignorance restrict growth. When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas, it doesn’t just cut off the people who are affected; it hurts us all. We know that investments in education and infrastructure, and scientific and technological research increase growth. They increase good jobs and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

The sentences are shorter. The rhetorical “why?” interrupts the list of four-syllable words. “Poverty” leads off a sentence. “Growth” and “increase” each gets a second hit. The “investments” clause is now a noun clause rather than a second subordinate adverbial clause. And those flabby present participles in the final part of a long sentence have become active verbs in the sixth short sentence.

Like Bubba, I’ve gone on too long. But I can’t resist a coda. Here’s one of Clinton’s wholesale additions, with a nod and wink to Shakespeare:

Now, but they did it well. They looked good; they sounded good. They convinced me that they all love their families and their children and were grateful they’d been born in America and all that—really, I’m not being—they did. And this is important, they convinced me they were honorable people who believed what they said and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made.

“And so are they all, all honorable men.” Marc Antony, watch out. The Big Dog is in the Forum.

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