Most rhetorical devices are still called by Greek and Latin names – but they endure in the speeches of modern politicians, including some of the most famous American Presidents of recent memory. Here is a short sampling from the past sixty years.
Richard Nixon's Tactical TV Rhetoric
In 1952, then-Senator Richard Nixon gave his dramatic "Checkers Speech" on television, successfully defusing a funding scandal that nearly lost him the Vice-Presidential nomination. A lawyer, Nixon was adept at the kind of persuasion necessary in courtrooms. Because the Romans knew such tactics well, they have Latin names.
For instance, Nixon employed occcupatio ("anticipation" of rebuttal) a number of times in the speech: "But then some of you will say and rightly, 'Well, what did you use the fund for, Senator? Why did you have to have it?'" By bringing up likely objections to his argument, then answering them himself, Nixon framed the debate on his terms.
John F. Kennedy's Hyperbole
JFK's inaugural address from 1961 contains a number of flourishes common to classical oratory. He employed hyperbole (Greek for "overshooting") when he declared, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Kennedy's speech also demonstrated an elaborate construction called chiasmus. Greek for "crossing," chiasmus refers to the X shape of the Greek letter chi. It occurs when key words or ideas are arranged in an A-B-B-A pattern, as when Kennedy observed that "For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed."
Most recently, Barack Obama's inaugural address contained a number of classic rhetorical devices. Here is one particularly rich example:
"For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn."
This sentence demonstrates anaphora (Greek for "carrying back"), a referral to a key thematic phrase, "for us" (The same occurs in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech). The excerpt also builds to climax (literally "ladder" in Greek) in the intensity of its verbs, and is an example of what Greek orators called tricolon, or a "three-limbed" structure.
American Presidents of recent memory have been no strangers to the same rhetorical devices used in Roman courts or the Athenian agora. Clever argumentation, high-flown promises, and carefully-constructed statements may have been used by Nixon, Kennedy, and Obama, but they are as old as politics.
Of course, there are more rhetorical devices than those mentioned here. Many others exist (including litotes, metaphor, and iteratio), and they can be found in the famous speeches of earlier generations, from Lincoln to Roosevelt.