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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff and Westen On Obama Speech

George Lakoff’s Alternet postWhat Made Obama’s Speech Great” is a must-read for political speechwriters, candidates and strategists. Interestingly, Lakoff leaves the linguistic heavy-lifting to others and uses his powers of analysis to show how Obama’s speech taps into something a lot larger than the buzz about Rev. Wright’s remarks — America’s longing for brotherhood. The whole article deserves a read, but here’s a teaser:

As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of words. These contribute to eloquence. I’m sure the linguistics community will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the structure of ideas.
…What makes this great speech great is that it transcends its immediate occasion and addresses in its form as well as its words the most vital of issues: what America is about: who are, and are to be, as Americans; and what politics should be fundamentally about.
The media has missed this. But we must not.

Lakoff’s article might make a good introduction to Obama’s speech in those future speech anthologies J.P. Green referenced on Monday. At Alternet, you can also read Drew Westen’s equally-enthusiastic take (originally in HuffPo) on Obama’s speech, sampled in this excerpt:

…Obama offered the most eloquent, intellectually penetrating, and most moving description of the complexities of race in America of any politician in recent history. But he did more than talk about race. He began to build a progressive narrative that Democrats, and the progressive movement more broadly, have had difficulty developing….

And Westen offers this interesting view of Obama’s link with the white working class, as revealed in the speech:

…the meaning of Obama’s loyalty to his pastor in the face of enormous pressure to cast him aside is not likely to be lost on white males who value strength, courage, honor, and loyalty. Nor is an aspect of his life story many Americans may not have known, about the role played by his two white working-class grandparents in his upbringing; or his criticism of the failures of fatherhood in the inner cities; or his willingness to speak openly about the seething resentments of the millions of white men who punch a time card every day, feel increasingly unable to provide for their families as the price of gas skyrockets and heath care moves beyond their reach, and who don’t view themselves as all that privileged.

It’s by no means certain that Obama’s speech will prove to be a ‘net plus’ with voters going forward. But with academic luminaries like Lakoff and Westen weighing in with such glowing reviews, it will likely be of considerable interest to students of speech in the years ahead.

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