What We Will Remember: Obama's Victory Speech and McCain's Concession

Obama and McCain accomplished two very different objectives last night: Obama unified and inspired; McCain departed with grace. Here's what history will remember of the speeches of November 4, 2008:

There were two themes in Obama's speech: unity and inspiration, and two historical figures: Lincoln and King. These are the lines that will last:

1. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

This line uses Obama's favorite oratorical device, the tricolon, the use of three clearly definable clauses to build to a strong finish. Tricolon's are often the lines we remember (think, "veni, vidi, vinci"). Technically, all words must be the same length, but that's hard to accomplish in modern English. Tricolons were Lincoln's rhetorical mainstay ("With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right").

2. "It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

If this speech reaches named-status, I'm guessing it will be called the "Arc of History" speech. The rhetorical line here is a paraphrase of Martin Luther King's August 16, 1967 speech, in which he declared "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." This line has matured over time. When Obama started using it, he quoted King verbatim, but has now adapted and made it his own.

3. "A new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

This is the most rhetorically elegant part of the speech, and its emotional core. It uses the tricolon format, and hits hard on ideals. It's also a unique part of the speech; it's not paraphrased or quoted. Look for it to last.

4. "Those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can."

These are the closing words of the address, and echo the lead mantra of the campaign. It will be famous for that if nothing else.

As for Senator McCain, to paraphrase Macbeth, nothing became his campaign like the leaving of it. McCain speech featured no great oratory (it would have been out of place in a concession speech), but his face said it all: his was a gracious and emotional concession. This was unsurprising: McCain is strongest in situations where there is a clearly appropriate but difficult path. In this case the game was over, and it was time to shake hands with the other team.

Two moments stood out. I suspect neither will make it into the history books, but they boost the stature of John McCain: First, McCain's silencing of the booing crowd with his hands while saying "please." In that moment, he stopped what could have developed into an ugly scene and transformed it into graceful concession. The second critical moment was McCain's reference to the historical significance of Obama's election for the black community. This was a classy gesture on his part, and much needed after the shadow cast by conduct at campaign rallies. He acquitted himself honorably last night.

A final caveat: Obama's victory speech will, no doubt, be replayed many times in the months ahead. But don't get too comfortable with Grant Park--the big one for the books will the January 20th, 2009 inaugural. Oratorically, we ain't seen nothing yet.

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