Based on its transcript -- here at the Washington Post site, oddly not yet in any obvious place at WhiteHouse.gov [Update: it's now on the White House page, here]-- Barack Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech was another extraordinary performance. "Extraordinary" meaning that it was like his speech last year in Philadelphia about race relations, his speech last month in Prague about nuclear weapons, and, only slightly less impressive, his speech last month at Georgetown University laying out his long term economic plan. Or, on a small scale, his answer in Strasbourg about "American exceptionalism."
What made these presentations extraordinary was not any single phrase or sentence, nor any paragraph-long flight of fine language. Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given. (Phrases or sentences are to be distinguished from campaign slogans, like "Yes we can" or "not 'red states' or 'blue states' but the United States of America.") Instead the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:
In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on. A passage from this latest speech after the jump.
This kind of eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.
At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness
in the right as God gives us to see the right..."
The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our
enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.
Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.