Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Un-Lincolnesque Inaugural Address

Barack Obama's inaugural address was far below expectations, as I noted briefly in this morning's post. So I find in interesting that William Safire, the great American expert on language and former Nixon speechwriter, has given Obama's address a mediocre review:

Our 44th president’s Inaugural Address was solid, respectable, uplifting, suitably short, superbly delivered, but — in light of the towering expectations whipped up that his speech might belong in the company of those by Lincoln, F.D.R. and Kennedy — fell short of the anticipated immortality.

It’s for others to cover the majesty of this inaugural moment, the happiness and pride that swept through the unprecedented throng, and the impact of being present in person or through television of a genuinely historic moment. My assignment is to consider the speech itself.

After the first stumbling presidential oath-taking I can recall — as much the fault of the Chief Justice as the incoming president, but it’s not something they can rehearse — President Barack Obama properly reminded us at the start that he was taking office in the midst of a crisis. He used the phrase “this generation of Americans,” reminding some of J.F.K.’s “torch has been passed” line or Roosevelt’s following phrase “has a rendezvous with destiny,” but today’s speaker showed no sign of its resonance. Late in the speech, he said that “the spirit of service” was “a moment that will define a generation,” but the two thoughts were unconnected.

Obama was wise not to blame only the capitalists for the sinking economy, as F.D.R. angrily had done; instead, he called it a “consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices.” That was an unexpectedly tolerant note, but which he stepped on with an imperious, lecturing pointer phrase about meeting challenges: “Know this, America.” That get-this tone is better directed to the Russians.

He got into a good rhythm with a cheer-up paragraph, reminding us of America’s productive workers and inventive minds, our capacity undiminished, setting up his warning against “standing pat.” (I once wrote a line for Nixon, “America cannot stand pat,” which got a glare from the First Lady — we never used that phrase again.) Obama topped that passage with a warmly familiar metaphor: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” That worked.

He was not above using the old straw man “those-who” device, scorning “some who question the scale of our ambitions” and “what the cynics fail to understand.” He skirted the controversy about harsh interrogations with a facile “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” — when there are times when that painful choice cannot be “rejected.” Obama followed that soon enough with a paragraph appealing to hardliners, promising to “responsibly leave Iraq to its people” — hawks can hope the operative word is “responsibly” — and “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” which is a dovish way of saying he may have to risk the doves’ charge of “Obama’s war.” A soundbite that will echo is “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense” followed by a tough message to terrorists: “You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

To his oratorical credit, the president did not strain for quotable quotes. “A nation cannot prosper when it favors only the prosperous” was a nice insertion with an eye toward Bartlett’s, and I liked “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve,” though it is not in the league with “the mystic chords of memory.” Obama’s “know that you are on the wrong side of history” message to Muslim extremists concluded with “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”; that is quotable if it is original, but I think I’ve seen it before. His “this winter of our hardship” is a well-turned phrase about discontent, even if not as Shakespeare punned it, “made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
I've been thinking about this "quotable quotes" meme all day. As noted, I watched the speech in full early this morning and thought it impressive. Yet, at this rate, Abraham Lincoln's under no threat of being knocked off the pinnacle of American presidential oratory.

Obama's a campaigner. If his actually governing reach rises to half the level we saw in his near-Biblical campaign speeches - ALL HAIL THE GREAT OBAMA! - we'll be practically born-again as a people.

The jury's still out for now though.

8 comments:

cracker said...

Proffesor,

The jury will be out for....2 years.

There's nothing worth even contemplating judging till then, it would be irresponsible and unprofessional of any scholar to wade into such an endeavor.

However, as far as homegrown Bloggers go....lets lets lets!

Jan said...

“we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”; that is quotable if it is original, but I think I’ve seen it before.

I think I have, too..well,heard it-- maybe not that exact quote, but something similar..on the Oprah Winfrey show, several years ago.

Figures.

Average American said...

AAAH, if Oprah said it, she'll never complain if he stole it. After all, he's "the one".

JBW said...

I'm sorry, did I not get the memo that says if a president quotes a phrase from somewhere else that he "stole" it? If he talks about beating swords into plowshares, should God sue him for copyright infringement? What's more, you guys don't even know if what he said is even original or not; you're just talking shit because you don't like the guy. Such sore losers.

Van Zan said...

Had he "met expectations", I wonder if some of the same critics might be moaning about how narcissistic or pretentious it was.
Obama's speech was intended to be somber, and a warning about how hard the work of repairing things is going to be over the next few years. It was not tone-set purely as a thing for future memory, or a spotlight in history, so the criticism of it "falling short" is based on a somewhat flawed set of comparisons. In any case... we know the outcomes of those presidencies from a comfortable distance. Who knows what resonances as yet future events may give this speech?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I'll leave it to each to judge President Obama's speech for themselves, but as for Donald's review of the review, I didn't read Safire as saying Obama's inaugural address was mediocre. Not by a longshot.

"solid, respectable, uplifting, suitably short, superbly delivered, but -- fell short of the anticipated immortality."

Yeah... I can agree with that... and, I'd be perfectly happy with a similar review of just about anything I've ever done or will ever do--though the words "suitably short" will probably always elude me, particularly as concern my blogging activities.

Again, I'll leave it for each to judge for themselves, but I don't see that review as mediocre, at all.

JBW said...

Agreed, reppy. I reread that part three times because I thought I was missing something.