Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln and the Art of Rhetoric

by Derrick G. Jeter

Much ballyhoo followed in the wake of President Obama’s Tucson speech of January 12, 2011, memorializing the dead and injured from the shooting there a few days before. Those on the political right characterized Obama’s words as, “A wonderful speech!” (David Brooks, The New York Times), “A magnificent performance” (Rich Lowry the National Review), “very good, maybe great” (at least the ending, according to Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal), and “Obama gave a terrific speech (John McCain in The Washington Post). And on the left, most notably was Garry Wills’s piece in The New York Review of Books, in which he likened Obama’s speech to Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural, calling it, “Obama’s Finest Hour.”
More on Wills’s comparison to Lincoln later. For now a few words about Obama’s speech itself.
Following a tragedy the general rhetorical needs include: the need to console the living, to celebrate the dead, and to connect the tragedy to some American ideal or principal. Obama’s speech had three themes: (1) honoring the memory and lives of the dead and living—consoling the living and celebrating the dead; (2) acknowledging that no one knows why the gunman, Jared Loughner, did what he did; and (3) addressing the growing controversy about the gunman’s motives as a means to call the nation to more political civility—connecting the tragedy to an American ideal.
Obama began strong and eloquent: “I have come here tonight as an America who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow.” [1] But then he succumbed to pedestrian boilerplate: “The hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy will pull through.” From there he quoted Psalm 46:4–5, but the point of the passage was lost in the barrage of verbiage.
But then, the speech took on new life as Obama transitioned to the lives lost and to the heroes who prevented more lives from being lost. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’s “Congress on Your Corner” was “just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.” Good. Judge John Roll was “the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit . . . on his way back from attending Mass . . . when he decided to stop by and say hi to his representative. Good. George and Dorothy Morris were on “a 50-year honeymoon. . . . When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.” Good. And so it went through each of the victims and each of the heroes. Good. Good. Good.
The speech reached it’s emotional summit when Obama spoke of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who “decided that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major League,” who “reminded her mother, ‘We are so blessed. We have the best life.’” And then Obama told the story of leaving Congresswoman Giffords side, moments before the speech, notifying the audience: “Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.” He repeated the sentence. This was very good.
He ended this part of the speech with two wonderful questions: “How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?” Perhaps not realizing, Obama had already provided an answer in the same paragraph.
These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require especial training for physical strength. Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned—as it was on Saturday morning. Their actions, their selflessness posses a challenge to each of us.
How do we honor the fallen and stray true to their memory? By remembering, as Obama reminded us, that America is still the home of the brave and the land of the free. This was big and good, especially for one who has taken opportunity to apologize for American heroism. And this should have been enough. Obama should have stopped there—should have . . . but didn’t.
The last half of the speech, the part Peggy Noonan called “very good, maybe great,” [2] was the part he should have cut from the speech. Really, it was a speech unto itself and he should have delivered it a day or two following the shootings, not five days after. The second half of the speech consisted of acknowledging that no one knows why the gunman pulled the trigger and addressing the political controversy about the gunman’s motives, used as a springboard to call the nation to more political civility. Though this performed the connection of the tragedy with an American ideal and much of it is filled with good and true sentiments, three problems plague Obama here—one is historic, one is rhetorical, and one is personal.
Historically, our present political speech is not worse than political speech of the past, as I tried to humorously point out in my article, “You, Sir, Are a Dullard!” Political rivals today don’t settle disputes with dueling pistols or swords, as was known to happen in our history—the most famous being the duel between Hamilton and Burr. Nor do members of Congress assault each other on the floor of the Senate, as Preston Brooks did when he beat Charles Sumner with fireplace tongs in 1856. So while civility is a worthwhile goal, politically speaking we are not more barbaric than those who went before.
Rhetorically, the second half took on the famous Obama tone of Professor-in-Chief; it was lecture-like. “You see . . .” “For the truth is . . .” But more than this, the last section shifted the focus away from the victims and the heroes—it was, after all a memorial service—to the shooter, to those throwing rhetorical grenades as to motive, and to politics. And while a call to civility in our political discourse is noble, it isn’t transcendent—it isn’t as big as the call to heroism made earlier in the address.
Personally, much of the last half of the speech rings hollow. What Obama said was untrue—no doubt the victims of the Tucson shooting would be proud if our public discourse was more civil and honest. But what Obama didn’t acknowledge was the truth that those on his side of the political spectrum, immediately after the shootings, accused those on the other side with complicity in the Tucson murders by use of their vitriolic speech on certain cable news outlets and radio talk shows. However, Obama, himself, contributed his share of incivility to our political rhetoric, intoning that Republicans should be relegated to the back of the bus, that he was ready to kick ass, that he would not back down, that he was ready for a fight, and that Republicans were hostage takers. Such phrases pale (and are comical) in comparison to what politicians use to say to one another, but are important to note if the one hurling the verbal jabs can get away with telling everyone else to hang up their gloves.
My criticism would be without merit, however, if Obama had done one of two things. First, if he had come out within a day or two and delivered the second half of the speech, as he did when he called the nation not to jump to conclusions about the religious motivation of Major Nidal Hasan, the shooter of the 2009 Ft. Hood tragedy. Second, if he had confessed his own verbal sins in not doing his part to “live up to our children’s expectations” of civility. Short of that, his calls for political civility were a little bit like trying to remove the speck out of another’s eye while a log is protruding out of your own.
Now, a few comments about Garry Wills’s comparison of Obama’s speech with Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural.
The heart of Wills’s comparison of the Tucson address with the Gettysburg Address is this:
[The victims] message to [Obama] was one of dedication: “They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.” This rang a bell with me. It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” [3]
But this is not a comparison at all; it is a contrast. Lincoln was asserting an increased devotion to the cause of saving the Union after so many deaths—deaths incomparable, not only to the six who died in Tucson, though each one was a personal tragedy to each family, but to any other war dead in American history. The deaths of the Civil War were unique in numbers and unique in cause, which was the salvation of our nation. The blue soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg gave their lives for a known cause. The victims of Tucson had their lives taken away for a cause known only to the gunman. This is a distinction with merit. Some gave and some had taken away.
Comparing Obama’s Tucson speech with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Wills wrote:
Lincoln might have been expected in his Second Inaugural Address to trumpet the gains of the North and the setbacks to the South. Instead, he invited all America to grieve for the tragic war and to share blame for the historical crime of slavery. God “give to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Death should forge a bond among the living. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.” Obama stepped around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrings done, to urge the doing right.
I’ve written at length about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“Speeches that Made History: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural”), but Lincoln didn’t do what Wills said Obama did: stepping “around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrongs done, to urge the doing of right.” Lincoln stepped direcly into the muck and confessed the nation’s sins, which was right for Lincoln to do since slavery was the “offense” that caused the “terrible war.” Obama had nothing to confess regarding the shooting. As he asserted at Tucson: “None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.” The nation didn’t shoot her citizens, nor did it’s uncivil political discourse motivate the shooter to do so. But there is no doubt that slavery was the underlying motive for open warfare within the nation.
Wills would have served his readers better if he had compared Obama’s speech, not to two wartime speeches, but to other speeches of tragedy—Reagan’s Challenger speech of 1986 or Clinton’s Oklahoma City speech of 1995 or George W. Bush’s Virginia Tech speech of 2007.
Obama was good. Lincoln was great.
[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at a Memorial Service for the Victims of the Shooting in Tucson, Arizona,” McKale Memorial Center, University of Arizona, January 12, 2011, (accessed January 16, 2011). All quotes from the President’s speech is from this source.
[2] Peggy Noonan, “Obama Rises to the Challenge,” The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 14, 2011, (accessed January 16, 2011).
[3] Garry Wills, “Obama’s Finest Hour,” The New York Review of Books, (accessed January 16, 2011).