‘Here is the God’s Truth’
What we learned from Joe Biden's latest speech. Among the lessons: this is how you develop a theme, from first paragraph to last. Plus, oratory as sub-tweet.
Happy New Year! As mentioned in the previous dispatch, I’m just returning from a long (and positive, if not fully foreseen) hiatus from digital life. Time to dig back in, and where else to start than with a speech?
Back in my house this afternoon I watched a video of Joe Biden’s address at the Capitol yesterday morning, on the anniversary of the January 6 mob attack. The C-Span video I saw is here. The official transcript from the White House is here.
I haven’t yet heard any talk-show analysis, seen any newspapers, or followed other online reaction to the speech. So this is a real-time, “fresh” register of what struck me in the presentation: its explicit emphasis, its implied themes and chords, its place in the unfolding arc of the Biden administration, its resemblances to and contrasts with past presidential statements.
Main point: a strong speech
—As a matter of rhetoric, I thought this was an impressively well-crafted presentation. In the annotation below I’ll call out the reasons I say so.
—And as a matter of civic leadership, I think it’s all to the good that Biden said what he did, when he did, as clearly and bluntly and even angrily as he did.
Note that I say “civic leadership,” rather than “political calculation.” I have no idea whether this presentation will move Biden up or down in the quicksilver of daily approval ratings, or help or hurt him in dealings with the great blob of inaction known as the U.S. Senate.
Without checking, I will bet that much of the right-wing response is that Biden has been “harsh” or “divisive.” And that the “mainstream” coverage will emphasize immediate gamesmanship—how the message will “play” with the likes of Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Mitch McConnell, and pollsters forecasting the midterms. Or what it means that Biden has finally mentioned (though not by name) his predecessor.
But I thought the statement was the right thing for a national leader to say, and will be judged as such by people looking back on it.
Most political speeches vanish without any historical notice; some age very poorly; some seem all the better with passing years. It’s impossible to know, but I think Biden’s tone and arguments will stand up well.
He framed his argument to match the longest-standing themes in American governance, rather than just concerns of the moment. And his tone was one nearly every president strikes at some point, under the pressures of office. That’s the tone Harry Truman famously called “plain speaking,” and that other people might call “let’s cut the BS” or “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
Just before Election Day in 1936, when he was running for a second term, Franklin D. Roosevelt took this approach miles further than Joe Biden did yesterday, with this famous passage:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.
But Biden’s words were sharper than what he had previously said as president—and their edge was very carefully honed.
Thematic point: two recurring motifs, from beginning to end.
On hearing the speech, I noticed a theme that was even clearer on re-reading. (Aside: some speeches that sound OK in real time crumble, like brittle parchment, if you go back and read them line by line. Others are meant from the start to be read, on the page, rather than heard. This one sounded good while I was listening—and seemed better, in its craftsmanship, as I went through it again.)
That theme was Biden’s paired emphasis on, first, the institutions of American life that had come under assault one year ago—the Constitution, the “will of the people,” the structure of democracy itself, as opposed to a particular partisan outcome. I’d heard that theme while listening, but on reading was impressed how systematically it was woven into the fabric of the speech. Many of the phrases I’ve italicized, below, are toward this end.
The second sustained emphasis was on the “failure,” the defeat, the “loser” status of the “former president” who was struggling to thwart the democratic results. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize how terms like loser and failure would register with the former president. This was the oratorical version of accomplished sub-tweeting.
Let’s get into the speech, What you see below is most of the as-delivered transcript from the White House, with some passages highlighted in italics, and then comments by me [in bold]. For space-limit reasons I’ve had to omit parts of the text, as noted with ellipses like this….
The annotated text.
THE PRESIDENT: Madam Vice President, my fellow Americans: To state the obvious, one year ago today, in this sacred place, democracy was attacked — simply attacked. The will of the people was under assault. The Constitution — our Constitution — faced the gravest of threats. [From the very start, Biden sets up the institutions of American life as the objects of the attack. He’ll return to all these references—the Capitol, the “will of the people,” the Constitution itself—throughout the speech.]
Outnumbered and in the face of a brutal attack, the Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the National Guard, and other brave law enforcement officials saved the rule of law. [Another of the institutional heroes: the rule of law. And setting up who was really “brave” that day.]
Our democracy held. We the people endured. And we the people prevailed. [Again the protagonists: democracy itself, and “we the people.” Biden will talk tough in his own behalf, but he is setting this up as a statement in defense of “we the people.”]
For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol.
But they failed. They failed. [On hearing the speech, this wasn’t just the casual re-statement many politicians use. This was on purpose.]
And on this day of remembrance, we must make sure that such an attack never, never happens again. [Again more institutional augustness.]
I’m speaking to you today from Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. This is where the House of Representatives met for 50 years in the decades leading up to the Civil War. This is — on this floor is where a young congressman of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, sat at desk 191. [For what it’s worth, I wish Biden had given this speech from behind his desk, in the Oval Office, in an evening televised address. Nothing matches the gravity of that setting. But this and the next few paragraphs are stage-business references to the significance of his setting.]
Above him — above us, over that door leading into the Rotunda — is a sculpture depicting Clio, the muse of history. In her hands, an open book in which she records the events taking place in this chamber below. [Everyone’s a critic dept: To me this seems like over-egging the pudding, as the Brits would say. Is this an allusion that would have naturally occurred to Biden? Imagery or references that call attention to themselves are usually a minus.]
Clio stood watch over this hall one year ago today, as she has for more than 200 years. She recorded what took place. The real history. The real facts. The real truth. The facts and the truth that Vice President Harris just shared and that you and I and the whole world saw with our own eyes. [This is more in the plain-speaking mode.]
The Bible tells us that we shall know the truth, and the truth shall make us free. We shall know the truth.
Well, here is the God’s truth about January 6th, 2021: [This also sounds authentic to Biden. The speechwriter’s job is usually to make a passage sound the way the speaker would have put it—if he or she had the time to do the writing.]
Close your eyes. [This is an interesting approach, which is effective because many of the immediate audience were legislators who had actually been under attack a year earlier.] Go back to that day. What do you see? Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol a Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart. [Refreshing to see outright criticism of the battle flag of forces that opposed troops of the United States.]
Even during the Civil War, that never, ever happened. But it happened here in 2021.
What else do you see? A mob breaking windows, kicking in doors, breaching the Capitol. American flags on poles being used as weapons, as spears. Fire extinguishers being thrown at the heads of police officers. [Referring to images almost all of us have seen on video by now.]
A crowd that professes their love for law enforcement assaulted those police officers, dragged them, sprayed them, stomped on them.
Over 140 police officers were injured. [Reminder of “the real heroes.”]
We’ve all heard the police officers who were there that day testify to what happened. One officer called it, quote, a med- — “medieval” battle, and that he was more afraid that day than he was fighting the war in Iraq.
They’ve repeatedly asked since that day: How dare anyone — anyone — diminish, belittle, or deny the hell they were put through? [Justified sub-tweeting of the legislators who voted against recognition and benefits for the officers under siege, or described the mob as “tourists.” He mentions tourism again below.]
We saw it with our own eyes. Rioters menaced these halls, threatening the life of the Speaker of the House, literally erecting gallows to hang the Vice President of the United States of America.
But what did we not see?
We didn’t see a former president, who had just rallied the mob to attack — sitting in the private dining room off the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours as police were assaulted, lives at risk, and the nation’s capital under siege. [“Doing nothing” has double-duty function: referring to dereliction of duty, and also the background “loser” / “failure” motif.]
This wasn’t a group of tourists. This was an armed insurrection.
They weren’t looking to uphold the will of the people. They were looking to deny the will of the people.
They were looking to uphold — they weren’t looking to uphold a free and fair election. They were looking to overturn one.
They weren’t looking to save the cause of America. They were looking to subvert the Constitution. [All of these are references again to enduring institutions and values.]
This isn’t about being bogged down in the past. This is about making sure the past isn’t buried. [Everyone recognizes this rhetorical pattern, with the snooty name “chiasmus.” It’s an intentional contrast: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” This paragraph and the next ones are built on this sequence of contrasts, as highlighted.]
That’s the only way forward. That’s what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth, they face up to it. Sounds like hyperbole, but that’s the truth: They face up to it.
We are a great nation. [Always worth hearing this from a president.]
My fellow Americans, in life, there’s truth and, tragically, there are lies — lies conceived and spread for profit and power.
We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie. [The “plain speaking” part.]
And here is the truth: The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies [not an inventive phrase but an effective one] about the 2020 election.
He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego [paging Mary Trump] matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. [Biden is reminding us of what was at risk.]
He can’t accept he lost [Mary Trump dept] even though that’s what 93 United States senators, his own Attorney General, his own Vice President, governors and state officials in every battleground state have all said: He lost.
That’s what 81 million of you did as you voted for a new way forward.
He has done what no president in American history — the history of this country — has ever, ever done: He refused to accept the results of an election and the will of the American people.
While some courageous men and women [who are the real heroes, etc] in the Republican Party are standing against it, trying to uphold the principles of that party, too many others are transforming that party into something else. They seem no longer to want to be the party — the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes. [Biden reminding us that he is big-tent. Everyone praises Lincoln; anyone can praise Eisenhower; Reagan is becoming beatified. Saying Bushes, plural, drives Biden’s inclusive message home.]
But whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them to find shared solutions where possible. [See previous graf] Because if we have a shared belief in democracy, then anything is possible — anything.
And so, at this moment, we must decide: What kind of nation are we going to be?…
Are we going to be a nation that lives not by the light of the truth but in the shadow of lies?
We cannot allow ourselves to be that kind of nation. The way forward is to recognize the truth and to live by it. [Shifting here from institutions as the heroes of the speech, to the very concept of truth as what needs protection against “the Big Lie.”]
The Big Lie being told by the former president and many Republicans who fear his wrath is that the insurrection in this country actually took place on Election Day — November 3rd, 2020. [For space reasons, condensing the next half-dozen paragraphs, about reasons to disbelieve the Big Lie. They’re worth reading, and again, whole text is here] …
So, let’s speak plainly about what happened in 2020. Even before the first ballot was cast, the former president was preemptively sowing doubt about the election results. He built his lie over months. It wasn’t based on any facts. He was just looking for an excuse — a pretext — to cover for the truth.
He’s not just a former president. He’s a defeated former president — [rubbing it in] defeated by a margin of over 7 million of your votes in a full and free and fair election.
There is simply zero proof the election results were inaccurate. In fact, in every venue where evidence had to be produced and an oath to tell the truth had to be taken, the former president failed to make his case.
Just think about this: The former president and his supporters have never been able to explain how they accept as accurate the other election results that took place on November 3rd — the elections for governor, United States Senate, the House of Representatives — elections in which they closed the gap in the House.
They challenge none of that. The President’s name was first, then we went down the line — governors, senators, House of Representatives. Somehow, those results were accurate on the same ballot, but the presidential race was flawed?
And on the same ballot, the same day, cast by the same voters. [Well-delivered line.]
The only difference: The former President didn’t lose those races; he just lost the one that was his own.
Finally, the third Big Lie being told by a former President and his supporters is that the mob who sought to impose their will through violence are the nation’s true patriots. [Referring back to his previous comments about those who showed physical and civic courage.]
Is that what you thought when you looked at the mob ransacking the Capitol, destroying property, literally defecating in the hallways [As far as I can tell, first use of this term in a presidential address], rifling through desks of senators and representatives, hunting down members of congress?
Patriots? Not in my view. [Reference again to the real heroes, and in passages below]
To me, the true patriots were the more than 150 [million] Americans who peacefully expressed their vote at the ballot box, the election workers who protected the integrity of the vote, and the heroes who defended this Capitol.
You can’t love your country only when you win.
You can’t obey the law only when it’s convenient.
You can’t be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies. [Again an appeal to institutions and ideals.]
Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America — at American democracy. [Can imagine some “can we really say this?” discussion in the speechwriters’ room. The image is used again, below.]
They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage — not in service of America, but rather in service of one man.
Those who incited the mob — the real plotters — who were desperate to deny the certification of the election and defy the will of the voters.
But their plot was foiled. Congressmen — Democrats and Republicans — stayed. Senators, representatives, staff — they finished their work the Constitution demanded. They honored their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Look, folks, now it’s up to all of us — to “We the People” — to stand for the rule of law, to preserve the flame of democracy, to keep the promise of America alive.
That promise is at risk, targeted by the forces that value brute strength over the sanctity of democracy, fear over hope, personal gain over public good.
Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history. [If it were up to me, these words would never appear again in presidential rhetoric, or anyone else’s. Puffed-up sounding.]
Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat.
From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered. They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.
And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us [This is so close! ]. They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.
I do not believe that. That is not who we are. That is not who we have ever been. And that is not who we should ever, ever be.
Our Founding Fathers, as imperfect as they were, [a generation ago, presidents didn’t need to insert this qualifier. That’s a positive change.] set in motion an experiment that changed the world — literally changed the world.
Here in America, the people would rule, power would be transferred peacefully — never at the tip of a spear or the barrel of a gun.
And they committed to paper an idea that couldn’t live up to — they couldn’t live up to [see above] but an idea that couldn’t be constrained: Yes, in America all people are created equal.
We reject the view that if you succeed, I fail; if you get ahead, I fall behind; if I hold you down, I somehow lift myself up.
The former President, who lies about this election, and the mob that attacked this Capitol could not be further away from the core American values.
They want to rule or they will ruin — ruin what our country fought for at Lexington and Concord; at Gettysburg; at Omaha Beach; Seneca Falls; Selma, Alabama. What — and what we were fighting for: the right to vote, the right to govern ourselves, the right to determine our own destiny.
And with rights come responsibilities: the responsibility to see each other as neighbors — maybe we disagree with that neighbor, but they’re not an adversary; the responsibility to accept defeat then get back in the arena and try again the next time to make your case; the responsibility to see that America is an idea — an idea that requires vigilant stewardship.
As we stand here today — one year since January 6th, 2021 — the lies that drove the anger and madness we saw in this place, they have not abated.
So, we have to be firm, resolute, and unyielding in our defense of the right to vote and to have that vote counted. [Condensing following grafs about officers who died in the attack.] …
Don’t kid yourself: The pain and scars from that day run deep.
I said it many times and it’s no more true or real than when we think about the events of January 6th: We are in a battle for the soul of America [To me, this sounds more high-flown than is natural for Biden. To me, it’s a battle for rights and opportunities in America, for fair rules and orderly transfer of power, as opposed to a battle for souls. Set up a fair system, and the souls will follow. But a subject for another day.] A battle that, by the grace of God and the goodness and gracious — and greatness of this nation, we will win.
Believe me, I know how difficult democracy is. And I’m crystal clear about the threats America faces. But I also know that our darkest days can lead to light and hope. [Any good speech by a leader, in time of trouble, must acknowledge real-world dangers, but express long-term confidence. Otherwise, why does this person presume to lead? Ideally the speech will then go on to suggest a plan.]…
So, now let us step up, write the next chapter in American history where January 6th marks not the end of democracy, but the beginning of a renaissance of liberty and fair play. [See above]
I did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either. [This paragraph and the next were delivered very resolutely, and had the sound of a man nearing age 80 who has been in national government for nearly 50 years and thinks: What do I stand for, if not this?]
I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.
We will make sure the will of the people is heard; that the ballot prevails, not violence; that authority in this nation will always be peacefully transferred.
I believe the power of the presidency and the purpose is to unite this nation, not divide it; to lift us up, not tear us apart; to be about us — about us, not about “me.” [The last line could not be more pointed, in criticism of Trump. All other presidents have probably felt, and have at least feigned, a commitment to the larger national interest—including to people who did not vote for them. And most other presidents, who have recognized the darker and brighter impulses in the national character, have felt some obligation to tamp down the most destructive ones.]
Deep in the heart of America burns a flame lit almost 250 years ago — of liberty, freedom, and equality.
This is not a land of kings or dictators or autocrats. We’re a nation of laws; of order, not chaos; of peace, not violence.
Here in America, the people rule through the ballot, and their will prevails.
So, let us remember: Together, we’re one nation, under God, indivisible; that today, tomorrow, and forever, at our best, we are the United States of America.
God bless you all. May God protect our troops. And may God bless those who stand watch over our democracy. [A good speech, well delivered. And Biden deserves credit for finding his own way to close a speech, after the cliche that has dominated the past 40 years of rhetoric.]
Thanks for your commentary on this excellent speech - as a onetime speech writer, I appreciate your analysis of the craft and themes that went into this excellent address. I must add that I, too, often wonder why Biden doesn't give these speeches in "primetime," in the evening, from the Oval Office. But it's been explained to me that such an approach worked when we all watched the same three TV networks and subscribed to morning newspapers, but it wouldn't work in today's diffuse, splintered media. By delivering these addresses during the day (usually, in the morning) he sets the tone and agenda for the news coverage that follows. It's actually timed and designed for maximum impact. Almost the opposite of what we saw with Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan et al. One of the impacts of the many cable news outlets, social media and 24-hour coverage.
I have been pleasantly surprised that the media reaction to this speech that I have seen has been positive. That is about the only positive coverage of Biden I have seen lately. According to them our economy is terrible.