Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Historic Speech

Obama's inspiring victory speech caps historic night By Fraser Seitel

Last night's speech was unlike any other presidential victory speech in our history

President-elect barack obama

Maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama really is different.

Maybe he is not at all like the men who preceded him in the White House or the self-righteous blowhards with whom he worked in the Senate. Frankly, I’m not convinced (Hey, I voted for John McCain, so shoot me!).

But … if his victory speech this morning was any indication, president-elect Obama may be very different indeed.

His speech declaring presidential victory was unlike any in history.

Traditionally, election night victory speeches are perfunctory and formulaic: 1.) Talk about how “humbled” you are, 2.) acknowledge your opponent, 3.) thank your supporters and family and 4.) mention the “challenge ahead” and then start partying.

Most such November victory speeches are quickly filed in the dustbin of history. (John F. Kennedy in Hyannis in 1960 simply read conciliatory telegrams from President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, thanked the people, and left.)

But Obama’s 16-minute oration, begun promptly at the stroke of midnight ET, was something different.

The rhetoric—word choice and syntax—was soaring. The delivery—emphasis, cadence, eye contact, gestures—was inspired. And the speech construction was unlike any previous presidential victory speech in our history.

1. The opening "moment."

Out of the gate, Obama confronted—with neither preamble nor overstatement nor false humility—the overwhelming significance of this moment in America.

“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 took but this simple, stunning opening sentence to summarize the unprecedented, historic occurrence that had just been confirmed.

Immediately on display were Obama’s subtle mastery of the rhetorical rule of threes to prove his points and the use of staccato lists—“young and old, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and non-disabled”—to drive home his promise as a leader bent on unifying.

His opening point—that “change has come to America” —required no further substantiation.

2. Respect.

Next, the new president acknowledged the man who had been his adversary for the last year. Again, this is standard.

But while Bill Clinton casually recognized Bob Dole and George Bush briefly alluded to John Kerry, Barack Obama took quality time to praise the merits and measure of the man he had just soundly beaten.

“He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he’s fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifice for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.”

It seemed heartfelt and sincere—the opposite of what one feels when Clinton speaks. This was different.

3. The thank you.

The obligatory “thank yous” also began like all the speeches that came before—acknowledging running mate, family, campaign workers. But then Obama suddenly switched oratorical fields and focused on those “hard-working, middle-class folks” to whom he was most indebted.

“It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston … built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give the five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause.”

Once again, with simple language and well-chosen words, Obama had reprised the spirit of the millions along the way who had flocked to see him and captured, with eloquence, the context that had resulted in this landslide.

4. The mission.

Where his predecessors had been content to bask in the glory of the victory moment and let the big issues wait for another day, Obama was all business. He quoted Abraham Lincoln and called for action to meet the litany of challenges the nation faced.

“Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers—in this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.”

It was as if there was so much to do, the new president didn’t have time to wait for tomorrow. The call to mission was that pointed; the delivery of the message that urgent.

5. One last living metaphor.

And finally, this new president with the new speaking style, needed to cite one last, living metaphor.

He chose a black woman he had met along the campaign trail, who cast her ballot in Atlanta—“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.”

And thereupon, Obama launched into a brief historical tour, through war and Depression, through segregation and assassination, ending with the election of the nation’s first black president.

Cooper’s journey—a metaphor for the hope and promise of positive change in America—was a fitting way to conclude a remarkable victory address on a memorable, historic evening.

Fraser Seitel has been a communications counselor, lecturer, TV commentator and teacher for 30 years, and is a prominent public relations author. He can be reached at

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