Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History Currently Being Made

I'm writing this as I am watching one of the most historic events in America's recent history - Barack Obama's inauguration.

Currently, Mr. President Obama is giving an address to the nation, and I am struck, as I usually am by his speeches, by what an amazing orator he is. I assume he has a speech writer, and wonder why former President Bush's speech writer could not create such prose.

Perhaps I am selling that person short, whomever he or she may be. Perhaps No-Longer-President Bush's speechwriter was forced to "write down" to Not-in-White-House-Residence Bush's level. In that instance, I commiserate with the guy (or gal), because that means he was, not only limited in what he could write, but also had to watch his carefully crafted words butchered by a man who had a tenuous grasp of the English language.

President Obama's speechwriter, however, has free reign. Listening to the words and phrases Mr. President Obama is delivering, I can't help but notice that they would sound terribly trite and cheesy if spoken in any other manner, by any other person. It takes a great speaker to take cliche phrases and turn them into inspiring soundbytes.

I teach Contemporary Presentation as an intro level college course, and we recently added a Famous Speech assignment that is optional to any student who wishes for extra credit. For the assignment, they choose a speech from a list we provide of famous orators and deliver it in class. We've chosen speeches that cover a variety of events given by famous men and women of centuries past. We tried to choose speeches that had no audio or video recording so that the students' delivery would be their own interpretation. I am excited to see what they come up with, and I cannot help but notice how studying Mr. President Obama's rhetoric and delivery will only aid my students in learning how to deliver powerful prose by famous speakers of the past.

The new president's oration reminds me of the inspiration of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a short speech President Lincoln wrote in the carriage on the way to the battlefield, and Roosevelt's address to the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt's speeches were addressing the nation in times of trouble and hardship. President Obama has the same task today, and he has lived up to that task with aplomb.