Monday, February 18, 2013

In which Obama induces false memory in Fallows, and I name that tune

In a headnote to his annual line-by-line annotation of Obama's SOTU (noting the political imperatives driving almost every line), James Fallows elaborates on a point he's made before about Obama: "You can barely remember a word of what he says. Obama's eloquence exists almost exclusively on the macro scale..."  In a sense, Fallows suggests, he remembers less than no lines, since the one line he thought he remembered -- ""not red states, nor blue states, but the United States of America," from Obama's 2004 DNC keynote, was a  "play it again, Sam" -- never quite said.

This evening, Fallows recounts the long back story to that speech and the missing line (as told by David Bernstein in Chicago Magazine), and then segues to some thoughts I sent him, e.g.:
Re that strange absence of memorable phrases: it's not just balanced by one strength, it's book-ended between two: conceptual complexity/coherence on the macro side, and cadence on the sub-micro. At least in 2007/2008, less so now, Obama's speeches were musical, hinging on repeat phrases (yes we can) and on the simplest of rhetorical devices, various forms of parallel structure, e.g. anaphora, the repetition of beginning words (also a lot of parallel phrasings in series -- "A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin" etc.).  It was no accident that was able to set one of his speeches to music to some effect.
That's a distillation of a post I put up in response to Obama's victory speech on election night, 2008, which illustrates the point. That was one incantatory speech.

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