Matt Lewis

The great gabber?

Much has been made of the way President Barack Obama frequently invokes himself when speaking, and it seems, his Memorial Day speeches confirm this.

I decided to compare Obama’s four Memorial Day speeches to those of his predecessor. On a per-word (our adaptation of per capita) basis, Obama used “I” a bit more often — but not in dramatic fashion — than President George W. Bush. By the standards of other speeches, both men referenced themselves less frequently during these solemn occasions (Memorial Day is, after all, a holiday to remember the fallen — not an opportunity for presidents to speak about themselves.)

But it’s in how they used the word “I” where Bush and Obama seemed to have significant difference. Most of Bush’s self-references weren’t self-referential at all. He preferred to use the words of others to make such points:

They will remember young soldiers like Captain Joshua Byers, a West Point man born in South Carolina who died in Iraq. When this son of  missionaries was given command of a 120-man combat unit, he wrote this to his parents: “I  will give the men everything I have to give. I love them already, just because they’re mine. I  pray, with all my heart, that I will be able to take every single one of them home safe when we  finish our mission here.”

(As you can see, in this instance, his use of the word “I” comes when he is directly quoting another.)

Obama, on the other hand, tends to speak about himself more. Here’s the perfect example (from Memorial Day, 2010):

As some of you know, earlier today, I was honored to join the Memorial Day ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois. Unfortunately, some extraordinary storms moved in, and for the safety of all involved, the ceremony was cancelled. But while the storm was raging outside, I was fortunate to meet with some of the families, friends and veterans who had come to honor loved ones who had given their lives in service of this nation. Later, I was privileged to visit with families of our wounded warriors as they battle to recover from the wounds of war. And I want to stop by here because I fly in all the time but sometimes don’t get a chance to meet so many of you individually, to say thank you for your service, and recognize that long chain of valor and service that you are a part of.

(Emphasis mine)

What is perhaps more telling, though, is that Obama eschews brevity in favor of his customarily flowing oration and grandeur.

In the eight years of Bush Memorial Day speeches I examined, there were a total of just over 8,500 words. Compare that to the 8,300 Obama uttered in just four speeches. Those on the left will undoubtedly see this as further evidence Bush’s intellect is lacking. Then again, they might consider reading a short speech — considered among the finest ever given — that numbered less than 300 words. Incidentally enough, it was delivered by the first Republican president.

For his faults, Bush understood something important about speaking at solemn events: There’s a fine line between speaking so little as to appear to not care — and speaking so much as to appear to be more focused on yourself rather than the event. Obama, it seems, may be in danger of crossing that line.

(For more on the rhetoric of Obama, check out this podcast I recorded with Sam Leith, author of “Words like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.”)