Politicians eager to keep up with the latest fad need more than a flag pin this election season; the hottest accessory of the 2008 campaign is the reversible raincoat. That’s the nickname speechwriters have given to the rhetorical device in which words are repeated in transposed order, as with Churchill’s famous line: “Let us preach what we practice—let us practice what we preach.” The fancy Greek name for the trick is antimetabole, and it’s been cropping up in speeches by Democrats and Republicans alike.
John McCain, in his Thursday convention address, deployed the technique in this admirably honest line: “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” The audience roared. McCain’s antimetabole echoed one used by his running mate, Sarah Palin, the night before: “In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.” The inversion of change and career, forming a crisscross structure, gives the line a powerful one-two-punch feel. During his speech last week, Bill Clinton recycled an antimetabole he’d first used in the 1990s: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” The turn of phrase pleased the delegates—they clapped and hooted—but a far less famous speaker can lay claim to the most successful rhetorical switcheroo of the Democratic Convention. Barney Smith, a regular guy from Indiana who lost his job to outsourcing in 2004, took the stage at Invesco field and produced this zinger: “We need a president who puts the Barney Smiths before the Smith Barneys.”
Antimetabole is often mislabeled as chiasmus, a related but different rhetorical device. (Technically, chiasmus refers to a phrase with inverted structure but no repeated words, like Samuel Johnson’s “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.”) It’s been around forever. The Bible is lousy with it: “Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). Frederick Douglass used it: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” And this is hardly the first time it’s shown up in presidential politics. To the American ear, the device is probably most closely associated with JFK, whose “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” delivered in his 1961 inaugural address, is one of the most famous phrases in our political history.
Still, it’s unusual to hear so many finely wrought phrases tossed around by politicians—especially during an election cycle when the Democratic nominee is regularly accused of favoring words over substance. If you’re a speechwriter trying to position your candidate as someone who doesn’t care much about sounding pretty, antimetabole is a risky device. Perhaps this is why Obama himself, though he’s used the technique in the past (at the Springfield, Ill., speech in which he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate: “He has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him”) shied away from antimetabole at the convention. Antimetabole draws attention to speeches as explicitly rhetorical events. And as Hillary Clinton noted back in March, “In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.”
Antimetabole is effective because it’s memorable—anyone who recalls the first half can probably summon the second by inverting the key words. But that’s not always a good thing. In his “faith in America” speech during the primary season, Mitt Romney stated that “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom.” The line attracted a lot of attention, at least in part because it was so pithy. But it attracted a lot of criticism, too. In the days following the speech, Romney had to field questions about whether he thought a nonbeliever could be free as well.
Despite the potential pitfalls of being a rhetorical flip-flopper, speechwriters keep unleashing the device. Maybe that’s because it seems to enact the “change” message that both parties are trying to claim as their own. There’s nothing that suggests out with the old and in with the new like a phrase that does just that.
Slate readers: Can you out-antimetabole the professionals? Send the inverted political message you’d most like to hear from either McCain-Palin or Obama-Biden to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll post the best responses next week.