Barack Obama is the President of the United States today (and amen to that) primarily because he is a brilliant orator. He possesses the power and the persona to make people pay attention and to believe in what he says. He literally talked his way into the White House. So I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that his inaugural address did not ring out with any words or phrases that will echo through the years. The consensus among the pundits was that it was “a good speech, not a great speech,” and I must concur.
Taking a break from writing an article about cohousing in New Hampshire, I sat down in front of the television just as Chief Justice John Roberts was flubbing the oath of office and settled in to watch and listen as Obama began his historic address. The millions gathered on site to watch and listen were inspiring, but President Obama’s speech was not. I kept waiting to hear the first utterance of some immortal words, some rhetorical gem to hang high in the human heart along with Abraham Lincoln’s promise “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” John Kennedy’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you,” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” It never quite came.
That said, back in high school c. 1966-67, I was one of several contestants who recited Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address at the Spears Speaking Contest. Re-reading it today, I am struck by how pedestrian much of the rhetoric is. There are a few jewels among the commonplace – “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich” – but it’s really not until you get to that triumphal “ask not” ending that JFK’s words really soar.
Then too, the “I have a dream” sequence of Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington speech, which was actually entitled “Normalcy, Never Again,” was a largely an improvised peroration. Still, I kind of wish that President Obama’s 27-year-old speechwriter Jon Favreau would have tapped more into the anaphoric power of a repeated phrase such as “I have a dream.” The best he seemed able to do was a more mechanical “For us, they…” litany way too early in Obama’s speech.
Some commentators seem to believe that the matter-of-factness of Obama’s inaugural address was intentional, meant to strike a serious, sobering note in serious, sobering times. (Were there ever any other?) What struck me most about Obama’s words, however, is the same thing that has struck me about his actions since being elected. While the speech seemed to be a call to “a new era of responsibility,” it and the President’s actions really speak to a new era of reconciliation.
Despite having been portrayed during the campaign as a wild-eyed socialist, Barack Obama shows every sign of possessing the inclination and the ability to get beyond partisanship. He has filled his cabinet with a diversity of viewpoints. He has embraced Sen. John McCain as an advisor and former Sen. Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. He brought fundamentalist minister Rick Warren up on the podium for a benediction. And he and his wife Michelle cordially escorted outgoing President George W. Bush and his wife Laura to their waiting helicopter, even as many Americans in the crowd chanted “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!”
So I was most inspired when President Obama said, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that far too long have strangled our politics.”
What if he really means it? What if we really believe it? What if we really do it? Won’t that be a great day for America.
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal view of the world around him. The ideas and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Forecaster.