Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

First Inaugural Impressions

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Aretha Franklin was resplendent in silver gray garb and hat, superseded only by her soaring "My Country Tis of Thee," which contains the line made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Let freedom ring."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.

Discussions - 6 Comments

We get, at bottom, the words of a gifted orator and potentially inspiring statesman .... the evident poetic skills of our Obama.

Ah, come on. It was written by a team of speech-writers. As all such things are. It's silly to pretend it gives a window into the mans soul or illustrates his skill with words.

If you read his two books, esp. the first one, you will discover that Obama is the best writer since Lincoln to occupy the White House. I heard he spent two days working on the draft by himself before it made the now-customary rounds for further revision. Make of it what you will, he had a golden opportunity to deliver the speech of his life, an opportunity he has risen to on more than one occasion, and he simply ran out of gas.

I agree with you, Lucas. Not his best effort. His daughter probably psyched him out when they visited the Lincoln Memorial and he explained to her that he would have to give a speech like the one up on the wall . . . Obama reported that she said, "First African-American President, Dad. Better be good. Have you started?" I actually feel just a bit sorry for him now. This was a very bad time for him to be hit with writer's block. But he was and it showed.

Julie, I think it was presaged by his less-than-scintillating speech at the Democratic Convention in Colorado. The fireworks that exploded right at its conclusion were the only clear signal that he was done; his speech ended with a thud rhetorically, no resounding climax; it just ended. The two-year campaign just took it all out of him. He tried to touch too many bases today, too much like a campaign speech masquerading as presidential oratory. Then again, like his November 2009 election eve victory speech, you could tell even he was tired of the power of his oratory, tired of whipping folks up again, when what he really wants now is to get everyone's hand to the plow. It's as if he wants to stop talking before his audience is ready to start working. He can't forget that part, only part, of his job is to motivate through his words. His bully pulpit is uniquely positioned to do that. Perhaps he thinks that talk has become cheap this past decade or so, and now that we've heard from him many a time over, all he thinks he should provide is some scattered charges, a few oppositional tropes, and a bit of passion--voila, soaring rhetoric! Didn't work. His words, his chief speechwriter's, a few historians (McCullough and Kearns Goodwin, we are told), were just not up to the task. One wonders what he thought of it. Everyone who has given several speeches knows (or ought to know) when their words work and when they don't. He knew his 2004 speech was a homerun, and probably thought his Philadelphia speech on America and race was at least a triple. I won't say that his prose today died on the page and off, but if his presidential inauguration drew a deserved cloud of witnesses, his address certainly did little to rouse the dead and added few sparks to the living.

All good points. I especially like what you say about him possibly being tired of "whooping" people up . . . I can see that one might very quickly tire of such a thing and--given the excessive amount of "whooping" that was going on in that crowd--I think that, if he has tired of it, it says something good rather than bad about him. There's something disconcerting--or, there ought to be something disconcerting--about watching one's fellow citizens carrying on with that kind of rapture and enthusiasm directed toward you. No one man (not even Lincoln) deserves such adulation and, really, it can't last. Any sane man must know this and must be wary when he sees it.

Maybe it's the audacity of moderation, as Kesler argues today on NRO:
Charles notes there were only Lincoln allusions, nothing overt.

But maybe too governing is a lot harder to talk about than campaigning.

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