Critiquing the President’s Speech

On Tuesday, shortly after President Obama’s inaugural address, Lynn Gaertner-Johnston posted “Deconstructing the Inaugural Address” from a business-writer’s standpoint. She has some great things to say about the power of practical language.

On Wednesday, Al Tompkins posted “What Inaugural Speeches Can Teach Writers,” from a journalist’s standpoint. He compares the speech section by section with pieces from Lincoln and Kennedy, to demonstrate it’s overall rhetorical strategy.

Today, I’d like to review the speech from the standpoint of a writing instructor, to point out ways in which it varies from a commonly taught model of

  • opening paragraph that ends in a thesis statement,
  • middle paragraphs that each begin with a topic sentence, and
  • closing paragraph that restates the thesis.

My goal is to reveal choices made in purposeful writing to heighten its impact, and how student writers can relate real-world writing to the strategies they learn from models in school.

What follows is the text of the president’s speech, with my annotations interjected. I’ve bolded the thesis statement and topic sentences.

“My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

I’d argue that the section above is actually one paragraph, split into three pieces for pacing and impact. The bolded words are the thesis statement for the speech overall.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

The above paragraph starts with a short, punchy topic sentence that grabs the audience’s attention.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

The short paragraph above is transitional. It’s topic sentence is placed at the end rather than the beginning so as to lead the audience to the next paragraph.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Again, I’d suggest that the three paragraphs above are actually a single paragraph, split for rhythm. The section begins with another short, to-the-point topic sentence.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

The above paragraph opens with a topic sentence and proceeds in a straightforward style, in keeping with the straightforward arguments it makes.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Again, I’d suggest that the extended section above is actually one paragraph split for rhythm. It opens with a controlling topic statement and proceeds in a straightforward fashion. Note, however, that the topic statement is broken into two sentences for dramatic emphasis. It could as easily have been ” In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given, it must be earned.” (The “that” introduces both restrictive clauses.) But the impact of “it must be earned” is stronger with the words punctuated as a separate sentence.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

In the previous two paragraphs, the president returns to his opening thesis and delivers some “meat and potatoes” statements about that thesis applies to his audience. The practical nature of the argument calls for traditional paragraphs that open with clear topic sentences.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

In the above paragraph and the next section, the president adopts the classic rhetorical tool of addressing potential arguments to the contrary, so as to strengthen the impact of his own. This strategy is also well served by opening with a topic sentence and then supporting it.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

The topic sentence of the previous paragraph is also the guiding topic of the next two. In terms of an outline, the next two paragraphs would be subsections indented below it. The three could have been combined into one very long paragraph, though that would have made for a more difficult read (both for the speaker and for us).

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control—and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

Notice how the topic sentence of the above paragraph mirrors the question in the second sentence of the paragraph prior to it.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers…our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Again, the above paragraph continues to unfold the main idea of the two before it.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

The above is another transitional paragraph, with its topic located at the end, to lead into the next section.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort—even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Having made his transition, the president returns in the paragraph above to a simple, declarative topic sentence supported by explanatory sentences.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

The short paragraph above delivers quite a complex idea. The topic statement is buried in a long, multi-clausal second sentence. Following a series of paragraphs with the standard topic-sentence/supporting-details structure, it generates a sense of unbalance, making it a turning point in the speech. I’ve added italics to the most important part of the topic sentence, the thought that sets up the next several paragraphs.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

The two paragraphs above are hardly paragraphs at all, but rather a list of details unfolding from the topic of the paragraph that precedes them.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

Above, the topic sentence summarizes the sentences that preceded it.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

The topic sentence of the above paragraph restates and expands upon the topic sentence prior to it.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

In the paragraph above, two sentences introduce the topic, which is then expanded upon in the body of the paragraph.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed—why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Notice how the first paragraph of the above section presents the topic statement, the second roughly doubles it in length, and the third somewhat more than doubles it again. In effect, this is all one paragraph, but the line divisions create a sense of growing momentum.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

The quotation is, in effect, part of the paragraph above it, a detail supporting the topic sentence.

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Notice how similar the structure of the paragraph above—from a short statement, to more detail, to a full expansion of the idea—mirrors the structure of the section starting “This is the price and promise of citizenship,” though with the strongest impact at the end rather than the beginning, as is fitting for a conclusion.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.”

You Try It! This sort of “find the topic sentence” exercise can be a great writing tool in the classroom. For example, you may not agree with all the comments I’ve made above, and similarly your students may debate what is or isn’t a topic sentence in a historical text, or why an author chose to break paragraphs where they are broken. Happily, that sort of engagement with a real text gets them thinking more deeply about what works and what doesn’t in a piece of writing, which inevitably enhances their own writing skills—leading them beyond the classic five-paragraph essay into mastery of the language.

—Les

Leave a Reply