I don’t know much about state senate races in Maryland. I do know a great quotation when I see one… and Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor running in the Democratic primary, has just assured himself a place in the next edition of any half-decent book of quotations.

Testifying at a state senate committee’s hearings into a proposed ban on same-sex marriage, Raskin was asked by a Republican senator whether such a ban would be required by God’s law. His response:

“Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You didn’t place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

Rhetorical scholars will recognize the age-old figure of speech known as antimetabole, the most famous example being John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Quotations like these last because they capture an abstract idea elegantly and concisely, so that it can be instantly grasped by a listener – whether it’s the virtue of civic responsibility or the principle of the separation of church and state.

Apart from the grace of Raskin’s construction, his words take on even greater power because of the striking concrete image they evoke. And in the two weeks since he spoke on March 1, Raskin has vaulted to national attention on the strength of those two sentences and the renewed vitality they gave to an idea precious to many Americans. (Raskin’s campaign team knows what it’s doing, too; the quotation is now front and centre on his web page.)
The lessons for speechwriters? Nothing you didn’t know already: less is more, striking images trump abstractions… and time-tested rhetorical techniques still come in handy. But it’s good to have a reminder – especially one as eloquent as this one.