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Aaron Zelinsky

Aaron Zelinsky

Posted February 25, 2009 | 02:00 AM (EST)

Obama's Rhetorical Inspirations: Presidents, Poets, and Hobbits


President Obama's speech to Congress stood on the shoulders of prophets, playwrights, and hobbits. From J.F.K. to an Australian pop band, here are the ten sources behind the most memorable lines of Obama's recent address:

1) "Madame Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the First Lady of the United States: I've come here tonight not only to address the distinguished men and women in this great chamber, but to speak frankly and directly to the men and women who sent us here."

This rhythmic lead in echoes one of the most famous openers of all time: Mark Antony's monologue in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." After mimicking Antony's direct address (a rhetorical device called apostrophe), Obama inverts the Shakespearean phrasing, placing the negation ("I've come here not") at the beginning of the sentence.

2) "Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here."

While Obama's inaugural invoked the Sermon on the Mount, this speech draws to a darker and more foreboding biblical image. This phrase comes from the Book of Isaiah, 2:12: "For the Lord of hosts will have a day of reckoning." The ancient Hebrew does not contain a reference to "reckoning" but speaks only of a "Day to God." No matter what text you use, it's clear what this signals: Serious crunch time.

3) "As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us -- watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead."

This line quotes John F. Kennedy. If Obama's inaugural address focused on Washington, this speech channels Kennedy, looking forward, cautiously, hopefully, and optimistically, with firm resolve in the character of America. Kennedy is referenced three times in the speech. This line echoes Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Los Angeles NAACP, when he declared "the eyes of that world are upon us." In 1961, he echoed these lines again at the Massachusetts State House: "Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us." Kennedy himself owed the line to the seventeenth century American preacher John Winthrop, who famously declared "We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."

4) "The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach."

Here, the antecedent exceeds its progeny. William Jennings Bryan put it more succinctly in his 1900 Baltimore speech: "The nation's destiny is what the nation makes it."

5) "And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world."

This is the second Kennedy reference of the speech, echoing a term Kennedy coined in his inaugural address: "Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation." An ambitious crash program for sustainable and independent fuel sources has already been dubbed the "energy moon shot" by some in the administration and press.

6) "But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary."

Fear not, Hobbit-fans. You have not been left out of the speech! J. R. R. Tolkien is this phrase's progenitor. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gildor Inglorion declares that, "Courage is found in unlikely places."

7) "And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country -- Senator Edward Kennedy."

The third Kennedy reference of the night, this one a double. Obama again alludes to John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural "[A]sk not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country" to describe Senator Kennedy.

8) "The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care; the schools that aren't preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit."

Time founder Henry Luce 1941 coined the term "American Century" in a February 1941 editorial in Life Magazine (which he also founded). Notably, the article called for the United States to take its place as the world leader and transform the international system by spreading "American principles."

9) "As we meet here tonight, our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy. To each and every one of them, and to the families who bear the quiet burden of their absence, Americans are united in sending one message: we honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support."

In the most oddball contribution of the speech, this line originates from the Australian pop band The Guild League on their album, Inner North: "The shirtless sky, the burning bricks. The quiet burden of your absence." I'll put down money that this song is on the Ipod of Obama's twenty-seven year old speechwriter, Jon Favreau.

10) "And if we do -- if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered.'"

This line quotes Daniel Webster's Bunker Hill Monument speech of 1825: "Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests, and see whether we also, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered."