Diagramming the Obama Sentence

February 16, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 57 3 min read

coverIn a Slate piece published back in the fall, Kitty Burns Florey took on the unenviable task of diagramming the utterances of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, clearly has a unusual predilection for sentence diagramming (which I’m pretty sure the Army Field Manual prohibits as a form of torture.) Nonetheless, her project was more journalistic than aesthetic; she suggested that diagramming a sentence “provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator.”

In honor of Presidents Day, I thought I’d return to the “lost art” of diagramming – last practiced (by me) in the Seventh Grade classroom of Mrs. Brenda Wooten – to see what I could learn about the mind of President Barack Obama. I selected a representative, and widely quoted, sentence from last week’s primetime press conference. The topic was the malfeasance of Bush Administration officials. Obama told Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein this:
The basic lucidity of this response, and its analytical ambition (this is the quality Obama critics, and some fans, call “professorial”), may be clearer in the transcript. (With apologies to the HuffPo, I’ve turned the period between “citizen” and “but” to a comma; Obama’s answer is a single, complete sentence, rather than a complete sentence plus a fragment):

My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

The diagram, though, offers several insights. First, the elegant balance of the central construction (My view is that x, and that y, but also that z) shows that Obama has a good memory for where he’s been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he’s going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) The third “that” – thrown in 29 words into a 43-word sentence – creates three parallel predicate nouns. And then there’s a little parallel flourish at the end: “I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.”

Nothing feels tacked on; the “ums” and “ahs” Obama sometimes inserts into his speeches are not meant to buy time to think about substance, or to long for a teleprompter (sorry, conservative bloggers), but to make sure his long sentences stay on solid grammatical terrain. At the same time, Obama’s confidence in the basic architecture of his sentences allows him to throw in some syntactically varied riffs and qualifiers: an absolute phrase here, a correlative conjunction or comparative adjective there.

By contrast with the syntax, the diction is quite straightforward, which may account for why the majority of Americans, unlike their pundit overlords, don’t seem to feel that Obama is talking down to them. The verbs here are all “to be” verbs, given weight by participles like “prosecuted” and “interested,” and by the muscular commonplaces, “above the law,” “looking forward” and “looking back.” The only superfluous adjective is “clear,” which sounds positively Bush-like, even as it serves to qualify the clause it’s attached to. Even more remarkable: by virtue of the third “that,” this is a complex sentence, but not a compound one. Like “I’m the decider,” it has a single, copulative predicate.

This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine… or rather, it may be one facet of a larger gift: what Zadie Smith calls “having more than one voice in your ear.” Notice the canny way that the sentence above turns on the fulcrum of what may be Obama’s favorite word: “but.” What appears to be a hard line – “My view is… that nobody is above the law” – turns out to have been a qualifier for a vaguer but more inspiring motto: “I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.” The most controversial part of the sentence – “people should be prosecuted” – gets tucked away, almost parenthetically, in the middle.

It is possible – mistaken, I think, but certainly possible – to dismiss this sentence as a platitudinous non-answer, and if comedians ever overcome their Obama anxiety, this may be his Achilles heel: “The beef, assuming it’s in a port wine reduction, sounds, uh, amazing, but on the other hand, given that the chicken is, ah, locally grown, I’d be eager to try it.” But to underrate the subtlety and appeal of Obama the communicator is to be out of touch with Americans’ hunger to be addressed as adults. Indeed, after “You’re with us or you’re against us” and “Putin rears his head,” such thoughtfulness seems positively worth celebrating.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.