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Source: Massey University

President Joe Biden’s task in delivering his speech was not to impress, but to heal, says Dr Heather Kavan

President Joe Biden’s inaugural speech helped Americans let go of the Trump era. But what about New Zealanders? We too have been saturated with Trump news for years, says Dr Heather Kavan.

As a lecturer in Speech Writing, I find that students often do not relate to American inaugural speeches. They prefer the humour of National MP Maurice Williamson’s gay rainbow speech or the visceral spoken poetry of Māori schoolboy poet Jai Selkirk.

During an inaugural speech, they would likely identify with Bernie Sanders sitting in the cold wearing woollen mittens.  

This is an analysis of the speech through a New Zealand lens.

An unlikely hero 

There is something mythic about the story of Biden’s inaugural speech that would make a great Peter Jackson film. 

At school, Biden had a stutter. He was mocked by a nun and taunted by classmates. He overcame the impediment, but subsequent years brought crisis after crisis, including the deaths of his first wife and two children. 

Now he had to give one of the most high-stakes speeches in history. 

Who did he draw on for help? Not a white American wordsmith, but Vinay Reddy, son of Indian immigrants. Reddy is Biden’s main speech writer, and he shaped the draft.  

Giving his heart and soul

Unusually for an inaugural speech, Biden’s task was not to impress, but to heal. Therefore he had to demonstrate selfless intention.   

 “My whole soul is in this,” he said, echoing Abraham Lincoln. Then he invited those who did not support his party to “take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy.” 

The subtext of “I’m not going to lord it over you” is appealing to New Zealanders, who tend to dislike hierarchy and vote for leaders who show they are one of us. 

But the religious references might leave some feeling tight around the collar. New Zealand politicians rarely talk about their souls. Even Hannah Tamaki would be more likely to quote Colonel Sanders than Saint Augustine, who Biden quotes.   

Acknowledging loss

Writing expert and childhood neighbour of Biden, Jay Parini describes him as “the great sympathizer”—words that could well describe Jacinda Ardern.  

When Biden said, “There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you”, he was speaking from tragic experience, as his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. His emotion was palpable, just as New Zealand public feeling was palpable after the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Speech Writing lecturer Dr Heather Kavan with an image of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, renowned for his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Sparking joy  

While the words evoked tragedy, the mood was celebratory. As Radio New Zealand’s Emile Donovan commented, the speech had a “Ding Dong the wicked witch is dead” feeling.   

Biden took several swipes at Trump.

He made a pointed “thank you” to his predecessors for their presence, implicitly reminding everyone of Trump’s absence. He vowed to confront “lies told for power and profit”. He reminisced about his Dad worrying about the mortgage, invoking a contrast with the Trump family’s privilege.

Reaching out

Biden’s challenge was to connect with people who thought his Presidency would be disastrous. Echoing Obama, he used the phrase “we can” sixteen times in the speech. 

There are also echoes of Ardern when Biden said that politics need not be a raging fire and when he urged people to stand in another’s shoes. In this vein, he promised to fight for those who did not support him as well as those who did. 

Being himself

While an inaugural speech is typically full of grandiose turns-of-phrase, many New Zealanders don’t take people seriously if they put on airs.  As a small country, we know each other’s clay feet. 

Biden tends to mix poetic phrases with simple, folksy language. The mix comes from his childhood experience of curing himself of a stutter by chanting Irish poetry in front of the mirror.  

Therefore there are moments when Biden spoke as if he was talking one-to-one, using phrases like “I get it”, ”I understand like my Dad”, and “As my mom would say”.  

These moments enhanced his authenticity. 

But what really took authenticity to a new level was the image of Bernie Sanders watching the speech. The “I’m not trying to look posh” subtext had a ring of New Zealand culture, and the ensuing memes relieved the pent-up tension of the Trump era.

Dr Heather Kavan is a senior lecturer in Massey University’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, and specialises in teaching speech writing.