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Posted at 11:02 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Kennedy inaugural address: Ask not what happened to oratory

By Alexandra Petri

"Use the word 'astronaut' in a sentence," the old joke runs. "Okay, Astronaut what your country can do for you..."

The speech pattern is not the only thing that's changed since J. F. K. delivered his seminal inaugural address 50 years ago today.

If the address were delivered today, it would probably include highlights like:

"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. For starters, Snooki's book is on the New York Times bestseller list."

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war Justin Bieber fandom, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace Amy Chua, proud of largely clueless about our ancient heritage -- and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world unfolding of a YouTube video longer than eight minutes because our attention span is --

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country ask what is taking your country so long, because you have places to be and that health-care legislation is not going to repeal itself.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. but go get America an ice pack, because America is feeling a little tired and stressed just now and needs you to leave it alone for a bit.

Yet even unlofty sentiments sound oddly compelling when expressed like that. What's happened to our oratory?

And ever since the president moved from "ask not" to "don't ask," the descent has been precipitous. It has been said that a speech is like a dress -- long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to make it interesting, and not a form that tended to make George W. Bush look particularly ravishing. "Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?" we murmured, shaking our heads. "Forget it. That's it for oratory, folks." The phase of spectacular rhetorical fireworks that had begun in the 1940s and vanished abruptly with the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson seemed unlikely ever to return.

Maybe it's not simply that we're worse at it. Inaugural addresses remain unique occasions for eloquence, but in recent years, presidents have been delivering, on average, many more speeches with much less impact than their predecessors. Part of this is the demands of the continuous news cycle. If it were possible to emerge once a year and hand down a magnificent and stirring pronouncement from on high that radically altered the public debate, I'm sure they'd do that instead.

But conventional wisdom has it that you may not be able to fool all the people all the time, but you do have to talk to all the people all the time. On YouTube, President Obama has dutifully delivered weekly addresses, but nobody seems to be watching. If a speech falls in the Internet and only 20,000 people watch it, does it make a sound? Maybe we ought to cut down.

After all, President Obama was supposed to bring oratory back to the White House. And to some extent, he's succeeded. The Tucson speech was powerful and touched the right notes in beautifully calibrated language. But when I say oratory, I mean Oratory with a capital O. I want you to get up there and proclaim things to me using antiquated diction in an orotund voice. I want you to gesticulate. I want you to sound like you just got off a train in the early 20th century and are telling me something over the wireless. I want you to use litotes, and rhetorical repetition, and -- and tropes! I want to be able to go through the speech afterward and contrast it favorably with the works of Pericles. If you don't invert at least one phrase, I will feel slighted.

"Ask not!" Yes, it sounds silly. But that's what makes it great oratory. And we could use some more of that.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 20, 2011; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Big Deals, Petri  | Tags:  America, Barack Obama, justin bieber, oratory  
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Comments

More litotes may not be a bad idea, but the last time I had tropes I had to boil all the sheets.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of the Compost.

Posted by: divtune | January 20, 2011 8:22 PM | Report abuse

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