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A Skinny Kid With a Funny Name

A Skinny Kid With a Funny Name

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Published by: writRHET on Jun 28, 2010
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“A SKINNY KID WITH A FUNNY NAME WHO BELIEVES THAT AMERICA HAS A PLACE FOR HIM, TOO:” THECONSTRUCTION OF RHETORICAL CHARACTER IN BARACK OBAMA’S 2004 KEYNOTE ADDRESS John Tiedemann
hen Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, he was hardly known at all outside Illinois, where he served in the state legislature and was campaigningfor a seat in the US Senate. It was thus a great stroke of luck for Obama to be invited to deliver a primetimespeech on presidential candidate John Kerry’s behalf. This televised performance was guaranteed to introduce Obama to a wide audience, boosting not only his Senate chances but his future national ambitions. Indeed, even before he deliveredthe address, Democratic Party officials were describing Obama to the media as the “future face of the Democratic Party.” The key word there was
 future.
At the time, the face of the Democratic Party was, of course, presidentialcandidate John Kerry. Therefore, Obama’s job as speechmaker was, first and foremost, to promote Kerry, who would berunning against President George W. Bush in the fall. Should Obama’s speech serve also to advance his own career, somuch the better. But the most urgent mission, from the point of view of the Democratic Party, was to send John Kerry tothe White House.As we know now, that mission was not accomplished; Kerry lost to Bush. However, Obama’s keynote addressnot only helped to elect him to the Senate but launched him on a national political career that, just four years later, wouldtake him all the way to the White House. Simply put, the speech was a sensation, transforming the “skinny kid with afunny name” from an obscure Midwestern politician to a national superstar, literally overnight. To understand how heachieved this impressive rhetorical feat, it pays to attend carefully to the subtle but highly effective ways that, in thekeynote address, Obama constructs his
ethos.
Although much of the speech is devoted, as expected, to lauding Kerry’sheroism, John Kerry is decidedly not the most compelling character in Obama’s narrative. The most riveting character inObama’s address is, by far, Barack Obama himself. By miraculously reconciling
in his person
divisions that had longthreatened to tear
the country
asunder the country, Obama successfully persuades his audience, the American people, thatit can once more achieve greatness if it learns to love itself again.Obama begins his speech by linking humility to heroism, defining a and distinctly American and highly paradoxical form of virtue through the example of his own family history. The family had modest beginnings: “My father was a foreign student,” Obama recounts, “born and raised in a small [and impoverished] village in Kenya.” His paternalgrandfather was a “domestic servant.” And his maternal grandfather “worked on oil rigs and farms through most of theDepression.” The family’s humble origins, however, did not dampen their desire to succeed; indeed, they may even havefueled it. Having persevered through hardship in battle and on the home front during World War II, Obama’s maternalgrandparents “studied on the GI Bill, bought a house through FHA, and later moved west . . . in search of opportunity.”And thanks to diligent study, Obama’s father received “a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that's shown asa beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.”Via these well chosen autobiographical details, Obama connects his family’s history to the history of the nation.His maternal grandparents’ story of sacrifice and hard-won success in the face of war and economic calamity serves torepresent the collective history of what later pundits would call “the greatest generation.” And his father’sintercontinental, up-by-the-bootstraps quest for achievement recalls both the immigrant experience that forms part of 
 
 
2
America’s common heritage as well as countless versions of the familiar Horatio Alger myth. Taken together, these twopieces of family history illustrate what Obama calls “the true genius of America,” namely, “a faith in simple dreams” borneof the premise that “all men are created equal.” As his own family’s story illustrates, suggests Obama, in America humility and heroism are not contraries, as at first it may appear; paradoxically, they are complements, each reinforcing the other toconstitute a uniquely American form of virtue.Having defined the paradoxical virtue of American “genius” thus, Obama goes on in the second part of his speechto play the parts of the scourge and the doer. He declares, on the one hand, that there is “more work to do” on behalf of  workers who have lost jobs, students who can’t afford an education, the sick and the elderly. On the other hand, hechannels the righteous anger of people from “small towns,” “blue collar counties,” and “inner-city neighborhoods,” who“don’t want their tax money wasted” and who “will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn.” In short,according to Obama, the country faces challenges that require vigorous leadership, but the American people are notinclined to sit helplessly by while their elected leaders attempt to save the day for them. What the country needs, then,declares to Obama, is a leader who “embodies the best this country has to offer:” that is, who embodies, presumably, theparadoxical combination of humility and heroism that, as Obama would have it, constitutes America’s cardinal virtue. Who is that leader? Predictably enough, Obama declares that “that man is John Kerry.” However, the catalog of qualities that Obama attributes to Kerry by way of supporting his assertion are all of a very conventional, generic, at timeseven bland sort. Kerry served with distinction in the military; he made “tough choices” as a senator; he believes in “energy independence,” in “Constitutional freedoms,” and that, “in a dangerous world, war must be an option sometimes, but itshould never be the first option.” These are all praiseworthy qualities, to be sure. But there is no intriguing and dynamicparadox motivating the John Kerry that Obama describes. Nor is there even much in the way of significant human detail:Obama’s paints vivid portraits of his parents and grandparents, and even of Seamus, the young Marine he’d met in “aVFW hall in East Moline, Illinois,” who is clearly intended to be a rhetorical stand-in for Kerry. However, Kerry himself comes across in Obama’s narration as flat, two-dimensional, a competent leader but an uninspired and uninspiring figure, wholly lacking in the dynamic complexity that marks all the other characters in Obama’s narrative. Who, then, is the true hero of this tale? Barack Obama, of course — though the ways in which Obama, thespeaker, discloses the identity of Obama, the character, are so subtle as to spare the former from charges of trying to stealKerry’s spotlight, while imparting to the latter precisely the aura of humble heroism that this tale’s protagonist requires. The rhetorical shift takes place in the fourth and final act, when Obama shifts the focus from Kerry to the nationas a whole: “John Kerry believes in America,” Obama proclaims, “and he knows that it's not enough for just some of us toprosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are allconnected as one people.” The turn here is from a he to a we, from Kerry to the country. But that we very soon becomesa me:If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription, and having to choosebetween medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's anArab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my 
 
 
3
civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief — it is that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, Iam my sisters' keeper — that makes this country work. [Emphasis added.]Of course, the logic of the argument is such that the
 I’ 
s,
me’ 
s, and
my’ 
s here are not to be understood to refer exclusively,or even primarily, to Obama himself. If we, as Obama had just declared, are “all connected as one people,” then, logically,any one of us can speak on behalf of the whole group. The
 I’ 
s,
me’ 
s, and
my’ 
s in the passage are, in a sense, impersonal:they belong equally to all of the members of the group. However, there’s no mistaking the rhetorical import of this subtlegrammatical shift. No longer is Obama arguing for why John Kerry ought to represent his country as president; instead,Obama is himself representing the country through his discourse, occupying, even if only for momentarily, the position of the
 I 
that speaks on the nation’s collective behalf. What is more, a careful examination of the Americans whose experiences Obama inventories in the passage above— the child in Chicago, the struggling senior citizen, etc. — reveals that the list is hardly arbitrary: each item on it refersback in some way, however indirectly, to Obama’s life story. For example, he is a resident of Chicago who worked as acommunity organizer on the South Side; his mother suffered financially as well as physically as the result of a deadly illness. And although Obama is not of Arab descent, his father was raised in the Islamic faith and Obama himself spent aportion of his childhood living in the predominantly Islamic country of Indonesia. In short, not only is Obamarepresenting the country by occupying its collective
 I’ 
s,
me’ 
s, and
my’ 
s, but it seems that the country is representingObama, reflecting in the diversity of its experience the diversity that characterizes his own. The sense that Obama and the country are mirror images, each representing the other, is brought to a still higherpitch of intensity in what would become the best remembered lines of the address:I say to [the skeptics] tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's theUnited States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America andAsian America; there's the United States of America. We worship an awesome God in the blue states,and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states; we coach little league in theblue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the warin Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledgingallegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.Again, the details of Obama’s biography were not widely known at the time her delivered this address; however, every media outlet in the country reported those details the next day. If they had not already inferred as much from the speechitself, Americans would soon learn that that Obama voted both with liberals and with conservatives in the Illinois statelegislature; that he was opposed to the war in Iraq but to continuing to fund it; that the Kansan woman who marriedObama’s African father was white; and that his extended family includes relatives from virtually part of the globe. Obamacould lay claim to the rhetorical authority required to speak on the country’s behalf because in he embodied its racial,social, and political diversity. And when he used that authority to speak of America on its behalf, the country of which hespoke looked an awful lot like Barack Obama.

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