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“Combining Styles Everywhere”: Obama’s Medal of Honor Remarks

November 19, 2010

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta on November 16th. It’s a moment calling for high rhetoric, in the classical definition.  In other, translated words, the high style of speech is marked by “figures of thought and figures of diction which have grandeur”.

Grandeur we find. A soldier’s death is the “last full measure of devotion”. Soldiers give their lives rather than are killed; the medal is offered “on behalf of a grateful nation” rather than with thanks.  Language is balanced and parallel: “Of all the privileges …. I have none greater …..  And of all the military decorations …., there is none higher ….”  In an age of plain-speaking, this is pretty grand stuff.

But Obama doesn’t keep to high style.  He breaks from it, and he calls attention to his shift:

Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say I really like this guy.  (Laughter and applause.)  I think anybody — we all just get a sense of people and who they are, and when you meet Sal and you meet his family, you are just absolutely convinced that this is what America is all about.  And it just makes you proud.  And so this is a joyous occasion for me — something that I have been looking forward to.

The style here shifts in many ways. The word choice (diction) shifts to “I really like this guy”.  Rather than elegant variation, Obama repeats words: “just say” “just get,” “you are just,” “it just makes,” or “and who,” “and when,” “And it,” “And so”.

The word structure (syntax) goes from careful parallelism to broken lines:  “I think anyone – we all just get”.  Lines here hop forward — “what America is all about –> makes you proud –> joyful occasion for me” — rather than flow in the longer, complicated sentences that opened the speech.  And Obama is at the center of the phrasing, it’s “for me” rather than “on behalf” of the entire country.

This kind of diction and syntax usually marks talk we make up as we go, like in conversation.  It also marks casual (or low) style.  So Obama switches from highly prepared, formal high style, to the conversational low one.

He switches throughout the speech.  He says: “Now I already mentioned I like this guy, Sal” as a preface to casually telling of his meeting with Giunta.  Obama follows that with: “Staff Sergeant Giunta, repeatedly and without hesitation, you charged forward through extreme enemy fire.”  By changing how he refers to Giunta, Obama clearly marks his shift back to high style, with its use of full titles and ornate langauge: “repeatedly and without hesitation,” “charged,” “extreme enemy fire”.  Obama also shifts from playing to the house, “I like this guy” to directly addressing Guinta, “you charged.”

It’s not the switching itself that is rhetorically remarkable.  Orators have always mixed styles. The question becomes why—why was this a persuasive move on Obama’s part?  What purpose does it serve, moving from grand expressions of a nation’s gratitude to casual comments about Sal and me?

I’m inclined to think Obama can be casual partly because Giunta is alive–this is a moment of celebration that needs not also serve as eulogy.

But I’d hazard a guess that what’s also at work here is an assumption about rhetoric and sincerity. We Americans tend to think the more clearly rhetorical one is (prepared, practiced, ornate) the less real and sincere one is.  As rhetorical scholar Richard Lanham wrote:

We all want to put on the [high] style.  It is a part of presenting our public self, like getting dressed up for a party.  Often, when we actually get to the party all gussied-up, we’ll take great pains not to act that way, to show that the high style hasn’t really changed us, that we’re still just folks.

So Obama calls on two kinds of persuasive language.  There is the  full force of the high style’s grandeur, where by honoring one soldier, we honor American ideals.  And there’s the casual, sincere and personal assurances that this is a good guy, the kind of guy that makes America great.  If the switch to low style suggests Obama is “just folks” too, another hardworking American trying to do his job well, all the better for a president whose reputation as a highly rhetorical speaker wasn’t inspiring enough to pull his party through midterms.

Both styles serve their purpose: to unite a country so lately divided between Washington and Main Street, with shared recognition and re-committment to the values that define American heroism.

If you want to know more:

  • I realize my cursory treatment of style might raise some rhetorical hackles. Hermogenes of Tarsus said:  “you should not be amazed if we should discover that this is a difficult topic and not such as to require simple handling,” and that was before the rise of the research university. In my defense, I have a really strict word count.   However plenty of people write on style at length, with rigor and humor.  For example, Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose, cited above, both explains the high-middle-low style division and complicates it.
  • In a brief sampling of news coverage of Obama’s remarks, I find wide variety in what from the speech got quoted. This is perhaps evidence of how multiple styles engage multiple audiences. Draw your own conclusions here:  NYTimes, Washington Post, WSJ, CNN.com, Foxnews.com, MSNBC.com, NPR.org.
  • The translated definition of high style is from the Rhetorica ad Herennium. I used the translation in Crowley and Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students.
  • My source for Hermogenes’s quote in the title and first footnote is Readings from Classical Rhetoric. Eds. Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa.
  • Another way to consider Obama’s shifts in language would be through the sociolinguistic lens of register, concisely defined as “repeated styles for repeated situations” in Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis.  Johnstone provides an introduction to register as well as an overview of important works on the topic.  I didn’t get into register, because while cursory treatment of style is bad, careless use of register can really get people’s eyes twitching.
  • I worked off the White House official transcript found here.  Video of the award ceremony can be found here.
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