Extraordinary man, ordinary speech, but with a few strong statements, which I will get to in a minute.
Best oration of the inauguration ceremony was the closing prayer by a founder of the SCLC and dean of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Joseph Lowery. His benediction began with the closing chorus from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a beautiful ode written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson for a Lincoln Day Celebration and that some refer to as the Negro National Anthem. His rendering of the e pluribus unum motto was both fresh and old-school, a nice feat by a man now aged four score and seven years.
Rick Warren’s opening invocation deftly closed by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, thus avoiding the quadrennial conundrum over whether or not to end "in Jesus’ name" by ending with Jesus’ very words.
Aretha Franklin was resplendent in silver gray garb and hat, superseded only by her soaring "My Country Tis of Thee," which contains the line made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Let freedom ring." Nice tie-in to yesterday’s celebration.
As for Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, "Praise Song for the Day," only one memorable line about "ancestors on our tongue," which I found arresting and suggestive but one she did not capitalize on sufficiently. Suffice it to say, the rest was fairly pedestrian.
Now for "the speech." Best part was probably the foreign policy section, which expressed strong support for the friends of "peace and the dignity of all" throughout the globe and fierce defiance to the cultivators of terrorism, who will face an American people whose spirit is stronger and, in the words of President Obama, "we will defeat you!"
Which brings me to the fundamental weakness of this and many of his speeches: the rhetoric of assertion. When JFK said, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, he could do so successfully only because he had prepared his audience to receive and be inspired by explaining first why such sacrifice is worthy of them. Obama did not succeed at this task today. His references to what is good in our nation’s past, esp. the American founders’ ideals and institutions, seem now to take on the form of window-dressing that takes a back seat to his preference for trumpeting the virutes of the more nebulous American "spirit." Our 44th president is reticent to place too great a stock or render too high a praise for our foudners because of their inability to accomplish all that they believed was owed to a free people--the abolition of slavery being Exhibit A. And so Obama apparently believes that expounding upon the equality principle of the Declaration, for example, or even the great statements of Lincoln and King, would be a form of worshipping "dead saints" (in that most infelicitous phrase of Rep. Maxine Waters) that would be insufficient to inspire the "Yes WE Can" attitude he thinks this generation requires.
So no Lincoln, no Kennedy, no FDR, at least in any explicit form today; and alas no new memorable Obama riffs either. Instead we get cliches like "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" (wish I were making this up, folks). We get an allusion to "putting aside childish things," a reference to scripture (as he noted for those who wouldn’t make the connection) that bears little of the profundity of its original. We get, at bottom, the words of a gifted orator and potentially inspiring statesman, whose words in the past four years produced the millions in attendance today but whose rhetorical talents did not quite meet what he has called "this defining moment." While he declaimed about "the price and the promise of citizenship," perhaps the best phrase of the speech, the speech as a whole lacked the literary panache of the best of our nation’s orators and even the evident poetic skills of our Obama.