Paul Greenberg

We all love to see our own hobbyhorses ridden, our pet causes adopted and amplified, our self-interest and self-regard reflected in a speaker's words, and the unthinking will call this form of flattery eloquence. ("What a great speaker -- he agrees with me!")

3. He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly and in few words.

ideas did the president seek to express in last week's inaugural? They were only outlined rather than explored. Any details remained vague under all the rhetorical ruffles and flourishes, riffs and repetitions. Which is why the speech, which really wasn't very long as presidential speeches go, seemed endless.

4. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

Mr. Obama was understood, all right. His motives were transparent. But they weren't very elevating. Or edifying. The mark of true eloquence is its ability to capture what we all may know but have never heard articulated before -- simply, clearly, undeniably. For (classic) example:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South." --A. Lincoln, speaking in Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.

After his House Divided speech, history changed. Not because a speech had been delivered, but because a great truth had been uttered. What great truth did our president speak on the occasion of his second inauguration?

I can't think of one, either. Which may be why his speech changed nothing.

5. He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

Last week's re-inaugural address consisted of little but ornament and amplification. It was less sermon than soda water. No substance and all fizz.

6. He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility, which is a great Christian virtue, has a place in literary composition.

Humility had no place in last week's inauguration, not with its succession of almost Roman hails to the chief, not with the principal speaker's comparisons of himself, stated and unstated, with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Cardinal Newman's seventh and last injunction needs no amplification. And the country needs no better, or rather worse, example of how not to follow his rules for rhetoric than our president's inaugural address last week:

7. He who is ambitious will never write well; but he who tries to say simply what he feels and thinks, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Enough said. Just as more than enough was said last week.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.