Today, 27-year-old Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s head speechwriter, will listen to the inaugural speech he helped the president-elect to craft. But just six years ago, Favreau was a college undergraduate like the students in Bryan Garsten’s class on political rhetoric at Yale last semester.
Garsten said he saw no reason why his students too could not try their hands at penning their own versions of Obama’s inaugural address — he presented them with the daunting task in place of writing a final paper. Roughly one-third of the students in his 20-person lecture, “Democratic Rhetroic: Demagogy, Persuasion, and Deliberation,” took up the challenge.
“Obama’s actual speechwriters started working for him not long after graduating from college,” Garsten wrote in an e-mail. “It’s very possible that some of my students would go on to become speechwriters fairly soon.”
Garsten said he offered the assignment because Obama had stimulated so much interest in oratory. The project required both a speech and a written commentary on the students’ thematic and stylistic choices, Garsten said. The goal, he explained, was for students to grapple with and put into practice what they had learned from the course.
“I hoped they would find a way of constructing a responsible sort of presidential rhetoric that could speak to their generation in a way that was both substantive and eloquent,” Garsten wrote.
David Kahan ’12, one of the students who did the assignment, said his speech incorporated allusions to past presidents and orators. Kahan said he expects Obama’s speech to evoke the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. while also incorporating traditional inaugural themes such as renewal, unity and progress.
But “Obama has his own style,” Kahan said, noting he thinks the new president’s speech will be original too.
Leah Libresco ’11 said she took a somewhat more “cynical” approach.
“We spoke a lot in our class about not just using rhetoric well but to what extent rhetoric can be used well at all,” she explained.
Rather than convincing the audience of a particular course of action, Libresco said, her speech attempted to build confidence in the theoretical speaker’s judgment and decision-making skills. The speech, she explained, was “light on policy” and emphasized “building a mood of consensus” through a discussion of leadership and unity among the American people.
David Lebow GRD ’12, the teaching fellow for the course, said the most successful speeches combined effective rhetoric — attending to the character of the speaker, the role of emotion, and argumentation and logic — with such linguistic tropes as alliteration, repetition and chiasmus.
Speaking from Washington, D.C., Lebow said the most successful papers integrated those general techniques with an attention to “the particular circumstances of Obama’s inauguration.”
“Speech is not sort of a neutral tool that can be applied by anyone in any circumstance successfully,” Lebow explained, pointing to discussions of Abraham Lincoln, the economic crisis and the historic nature of Obama’s presidency as particularly relevant for the occasion.
Nicholas Kemper ’11 said he looked to Obama’s past speeches for inspiration for his own address. In turn, when Obama takes the podium at the Capitol today, Kemper said, he hopes the new president will use some of the same rhetoric Kemper incorporated into his own speech. (Kemper is a Production & Design staffer for the News.)
“I’m most curious as to whether [Obama] focuses the speech on a key challenge or a key idea,” Kemper wrote in an e-mail. “My call is he will focus on an idea, and that idea will be the importance of personal responsibility.”
Yesterday, Slate magazine named a version of Kemper’s speech the top-rated address in a contest the publication hosted.
Garsten said he hopes the students who did the assignment will hear Obama’s speech with a keener attention to the choices the president-elect and his speechwriters made.
And the professor, too, will be listening closely.
“I can’t help but listen to the real inaugural in the same way that I read the students’ speeches,” he wrote of the address Obama will give, adding, “But I’m not sure he’ll be as interested in the grade he gets from me.”