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Politics

A Professor of Rhetoric Explains How Obama’s Charleston Eulogy Shows His Evolution on Guns

The president's eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was a mature diagnosis of America's gun violence problem. David Frank, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Oregon, explains why.

Tucson. Aurora. Newtown. Charleston. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has been called to those tragedy-stricken cities to eulogize victims of mass gun violence. On Friday, President Obama traveled to Charleston to speak at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church and a South Carolina state senator, who was murdered last week along with eight other worshippers attending a Wednesday-evening Bible study.

While seemingly similar in context, the substance of Obama’s rhetoric in each address has been never been the same. To examine Obama’s remarks in Charleston, The Trace spoke with David Frank, professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon, who has previously written about the rhetoric of Obama’s eulogies for victims of gun violence. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

This was not the first time President Obama delivered a eulogy in the wake of a mass shooting. What did you think of his address?
It was terrific. A wonderful declaration. I think he accomplished all the aspirations that he set out to achieve. The rhetorical growth from Tucson [in 2011] to Charleston, for me, is quite remarkable. He moved from quoting Job, and stating that we must be in despair, and can’t possibly understand why these evil things happened in Tucson, to the address that he delivered today, in which he quite eloquently bridged his theological frame of grace with some specific and concrete policy objectives that we need to seek out.

Like he did in his Charleston speech, President Obama pushed for gun control after the Newtown shooting. Did you detect any differences in his tone between those two addresses?
Yes, I think the frame that he used in Charleston was sharper and more powerful in the sense that he was able to link the death of the nine victims to racism. He wasn’t able to do that at Newtown. Since he was dealing with two imperatives in Charleston — one dealing with racism and the second dealing with gun control — he was able to move us, as a country, forward and ask us to consider policy to deal with both imperatives.

The gun legislation Obama introduced after Newtown failed. Were you surprised that he decided to issue another call to action given the political obstacles that effort will face?
No, I don’t think he was under any illusion that his efforts here were going to be immediately successful. He is well-known for his understanding of the long civil rights movement; that change doesn’t happen overnight or in a four- or eight-year period. I think he understood and understands that he’s establishing the touchstones that will build an effective campaign to limit guns and gun violence in the future.

Thinking about Obama’s legacy on guns and gun control, where does this speech fit?
He has moved significantly from the speech that he delivered in Tucson — where he said that we can’t know what goes on in the mind of a mass murderer, and that evil doesn’t have an explanation—to the speech that he delivered today, where he articulated reasons why we face racism and why we continue to face with gun violence. He identified some specific steps that we might take to deal with both racism and the problem of gun violence.

Now, obviously, he will not be in office when both of those problems are fully resolved. It’s a legacy that he will be able to hand-off to the next president. And if it’s Hillary Clinton, I suspect that she would take that legacy and would work to continue to implement it. But given the obstructive nature of the NRA and many of the Republican candidates that are going to win office in the next election, it’s going to be difficult for Clinton — if she is the next president — to do much more than Obama has done.

During his eulogy of the Rev. Pinckney, Obama mentioned how Pinckney — as a South Carolina state senator — had to deal with an intransigent Republican state and would often have to stand up and support hopeless causes. Was Obama perhaps drawing a parallel to himself here and his own struggles with Congress?
That’s a spot-on observation. When he was talking about the Rev. Pinckney, Obama was really talking about himself and the struggles that he has had with this Congress, and that he needs to be resilient and not resigned: The battle is not over.

You mentioned the word legacy, and I think this speech provides a blueprint for Obama as he finishes his presidency. It’s a blueprint that he can hand off to next president. It’s a blueprint that is rooted in the theological interpretation of evil that he offered at Tucson, but also now offers some specific policy recommendations that were absent in that speech.

As you know, if watch Fox News or listen to the NRA in the wake of gun violence, the rhetoric is that this is not a time to talk about gun violence, when people are mourning, and guns don’t kill people, people kill people — all the clichés. I think Obama made the right choice, I would argue, to introduce policy discussions in a eulogy, even though that is a treacherous choice because you have to be sure to honor the dead.

But I thought this speech on grace — “Amazing Grace” — was gracefully delivered and gracefully presented.

[Photo illustration: Aaron Kinnari]