Diagnosing Obama’s rhetoric: My chat with Sam Leith

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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While Matt is on holiday, he has selected a few of his “greatest hits” to re-run until he returns next week. This originally ran on May 23, 2012.

My latest podcast features Sam Leith, the author of “Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.”

Leith has analyzed President Obama‘s use of rhetorical style to explain why he is such an effective public speaker. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Obama is completely addicted to what we technical rhetoricians call anaphora, which is what politicians always do. It’s where you repeat a word or a phrase at the beginning of the sentence, so you build up a whole rhythm. He says, “I’m going to be a President who’s going to do this, a President who’s going to do that…”

He also builds very musical sentences. He never says something in one term when he can say it in two. And that’s called syntheton, which goes: We’re talking about homes and jobs, people and places, fish and chips…

He also does — which I wish I knew why it was so effective, neurologically — but he does what’s called the group of three, which is called the trichodon. “Blood, sweat, and tears,” which is actually a misquote from [Winston] Churchill … The human brain wants things to go into groups of three for some reason. It’s hugely rhetorically effective to use groups of three, and Obama does it all the time.

… If you just look for grouping of three phrases that rise up in import and significance as you get to the end. So things fall into groups of three, balanced pairs, the syntheton thing. There are a lot of parallelisms, lot of antithesis, one thing and the other.

Leith continued:

[Obama’s] very conscious, actually, of the noise, the rhythms and cadences of a speech are really important. One of the things that hasn’t been much discussed about “Yes We Can” is that the reason it sounds so forceful and determined, and has so much resonance with people, is that it is … three stressed syllables in a row. That’s quite rare in speech. Yes. We Can. It’s forceful.

Those forms of words sound solid. “I Like Ike” was as well. It’s something to throw in the mix, this idea of euphony. It’s not necessarily a coincidence that, “We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident” is in iambic pentameter.

(Emphasis mine)

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Matt K. Lewis