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Rhetorical analysis of Presidential Speeches

Being an American can be defined in numerous ways, one of which is through analyzing the speeches of prominent American presidents and speakers. The evolution of public policy also follows the shifting opinions or focus of these speeches. Placing special focus on typical Greek rhetoric, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech defines the American people as united for a common, unified cause, while George Bush, in his “Address to the Joint Sessions of Congress and the American People” defines Americans as a brave and united people ready to sacrifice for each another in times of adverse conditions. Although all three mentioned speeches do so in different ways, the speeches use the Greek philosophies of logos, kairos, pathos, and ethos.

George Bush’s “Address to the Joint Session of Congress and the American People” is a speech delivered during a confused time in American history—he gave this speech nine days after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan. The main reason for his speech was to lift the spirits of the American people and the families of the victims. There was a tone in Bush’s address that definitely warned the terrorists, stating that the United States would not tolerate terrorist attacks from anyone at any time. Bush emphasizes his reassurance in one of his quotes.

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom- the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time depends on us (117).

What the American people needed was for someone to step up and reassure them that nothing like the attack would happen again, and Bush did just that in his speech. He told the people that America would prevail, while clearly speaking directly to the terrorists and telling them this would not be tolerated. This a great example of Bush using kairos to appeal to the American people with regards to the surroundings at the time.

A speech delivered during Barack Obama’s first presidency replied to the video clip of his own pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, making racial comments against America. Obama responds to calls by his opponents to own up to the comments of his former pastor, Rev. Wright. Although Obama said outright that he was appalled by Reverend Wright’s comments, controversy still lingered due to his current and future attachment with Wright. Reverend Wright’s comments were detrimental to Obama’s campaign and at the time President Obama needed to say what he had to say to save face. Rev. Wright’s comments are divisive to the American people, thus Obama as an aspiring future president must show his willingness and power to rule a united America. While this could have forced a racial issue cast over Obama’s Presidency, he took advantage of the situation to subliminally reassure that not only would he not tolerate such words, but would act as well. This is another great example of kairos.

President Barack Obama used logos based rhetoric in his “A More Perfect Union” speech when he addressed the people by saying “I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes.” (377).This was a to-the-point explanation of why Barack Obama decided to run for president, appealing to logic. the logos style of rhetoric. It was unarguable at the time of Obama’s election that the country was divided, and Barack Obama hoped beyond all hopes that his election would be the key to unifying a torn apart nation.

In George Bush’s ‘Address to the Joint Sessions of Congress and the American People’, Bush used the logos style of rhetoric to appeal to logic when he said

“I thank the Congress for its leadership at such an important time. All of America was touched, on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol, singing “God Bless America.” And you did more than sing; you acted, by delivering $40 billion to rebuild our communities and meet the needs of our military.”

With this quote, Bush reached out to the people by looking at hard evidence that supported his claims that America had not fallen after 9/11, but rather grown together, and strengthened. This was a logical approach to reaching the people, and it seemed to work. After September 11th the United States experienced some of the most unified times of its history.

Pathos is Greek for suffering. In the rhetorical sense pathos refers to speech that has emotional appeal. I George W. Bush’s used the pathos pathetic appeal to try and gain unity among Americans. “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” (112) He plays on the heartstrings of Americans following with, “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” (par. 112) This was Bush’s way of instilling a sense of emotional connectedness among Americans. The American people were bound by tragedy because of the devastation they shared that was sprung upon them by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Because these attacks affected everyone across the country, Bush could use pathos to play on the emotions of the public to cause a stronger persuasive argument built upon the heartstrings of listeners everywhere.

President Barack Obama appeals to the emotions of the American public by saying the following about Rev. Wright, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. (380)

Here Obama is trying to appeal to the emotional side of the white community, outraged by Reverend Wright’s comments, by helping Americans, and perhaps manipulating them, into seeing his own perspective on the comments, and how exactly he handled it. This was an excellent execution of pathos rhetoric because people were now able to relate.

Perhaps the best example of pathos rhetoric can be seen in Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from Birmingham jail. “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and  drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen  curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when  you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight  cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. (288).

Here, King eloquently spoke of the brutality experienced by the black people, hoping to reach out to both the black and white communities. The specific imagery focuses the attention of the listeners to violence which This use of dramatic language and strong emotional speech is example of pathos rhetoric. King uses concrete images to play to an audience that may not be able to relate to his struggle.

Ethos is Greek for character- when applied to rhetoric, ethos describes speaking that refers to the trustworthiness or credibility of the writer or speaker—or to the righteousness of their perspective and agenda. Barack Obama demonstrated ethos by saying, “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents… I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” (377). Obama’s diverse culture and background, combined with the fact that he was the first black president ever elected in the United States, makes this statement applicable to Obama’s diversity in character and worldliness, two things that clearly qualify him to make decisions.

In King’s letter he uses ethos to show his credibility. King writes,

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against ‘outsiders coming in.’ I have the honor of serving as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. (286)

He shows the clergymen that he is not an outsider, but rather a leader against racism and has the authority to speak about the issues of segregation. This is King’s way of establishing authority and trustworthiness within his community–necessary in ethos rhetoric. For sympathy and a common purpose to be established, the listener must know that they are really being heard and understood, that the speaker is not one of the ‘outsiders’ sent to trick them into submission.

Bush and Obama both use antistrophe throughout their speeches to make important parts of their speech stand out in the minds of the audience. Bush stated, “We have seen it in the courage of passengers…we have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers… we’ve seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers…we have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own.”(112). Bush uses “we have seen” to describe the unity of American people. Repeating “we have seen” over and over again continues to pound it into the readers’ mind.

Obama repeats,

This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. (385).

Obama uses antistrophe to show that this is the right time to discuss the issues of our education system and that every child should have a good education no matter what their race is, creating the impression that the minorities of American society are, in fact, in the majority of the voices which should advocate most for educational reform.

Although all three men used the principles of ethos, kairos, pathos, and logos to effectively hammer home their points using these ancient Greek rhetorical devices. The most successful speeches often find a way to combine all four in subtle ways which unify the country under the cause which they set forward as the most important. A president is not elected without first learning how to make people believe what he wants them to believe. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced a debate which had relented little during the course of a few hundred years. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama faced epidemics of terrorism and economic recession rather than hate or prejudice, but each problem demanded the sort of man that each was- King the optimist and visionary, Bush the “take no prisoners” Texan, and Obama the pulse of hope. A “house divided against itself cannot stand” and neither can a conflicted body of American voters. The problem of a “not my problem” generation must move beyond words- often through optimism or fear- and must make sense as presented. In politics, timing is everything.

Works cited

Bush, George W.” Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People.”Language Matters,Ed. Debra Dew. Colrado springs:Fountainhead Press, 2010.112-118.Print

King Marten Luther, Jr” Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Language Matters,Ed. Debra Dew. Colrado springs:Fountainhead Press, 2010.286-299.Print

Obama, Barack.” A more Perfect Union” Language Matters,Ed. Debra Dew. Colrado springs:Fountainhead Press, 2010.377-386.Print