My friend Zhombre was at the bookstore perusing the shelves when he came across a Penguin Press book entitled “The Inaugural Address, 2009.” That’s well and good. I’m sure there are some in America who want to clutch this banal speech as tightly to their chest as Chinese citizens were forced to do with Mao’s Little Red Book. The only problem for Penguin was that the Address on its own doesn’t even make an adequate pamphlet. Clearly, more material is needed. Penguin’s obvious choice would have been to include the other speeches made at the Inauguration. You remember this one:
“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around. When yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.” (The Rev. Joseph Lowry.)
But it’s just so pedestrian to pair the great orator with ordinary living mortals. How much better to look into the past and give Obama the oratorical equivalent of a place on Mount Rushmore. So now you can buy from Penguin Press a book that boasts this full title: “The Inaugural Address, 2009 : Together with Abraham Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses and The Gettysburg Address and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance.”
The publishing company explains its thinking, which is all about inspiring people because Lincoln and Emerson inspired Obama and Obama will inspire you, or something like that:
Tying into the official theme for the 2009 inaugural ceremony, “A New Birth of Freedom” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Penguin presents a keepsake edition commemorating the inauguration of President Barack Obama with words of the two great thinkers and writers who have helped shape him politically, philosophically, and personally: Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Having Lincoln and Emerson’s most influential, memorable, and eloquent words along with Obama’s historic inaugural address will be a gift of inspiration for every American for generations to come.
Well, yes. But let’s actually look at the paired rhetoric for a moment. I’m not too, too familiar with Emerson’s writings, so I’ll just stick to a straight Lincoln/Obama comparison. Here’s one of my favorite parts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address (which you can get for free on line):
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Nice. Beautifully balanced clauses, a firmly stated moral principle, and a vision of a coherent national purpose. Nor was this aberrant. One only needs to read the most famous speech in American history to appreciate the Lincoln’s oratory had an elegance matched by very few since his time (Churchill, MLK, and who else?). Here, in its entirety, is the Gettysburg address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That is a truly exquisite piece of rhetoric. It is also antithetical to everything the statist Obama stands for. In the very first sentence, it speaks of liberty and the equality of opportunity. Obama craves state control and forced “equality of outcome.” In the swelling final paragraph, aside from truly honoring the war dead (in stark contrast to our current president who wouldn’t visit the war wounded in 2008 because his entourage couldn’t witness his beneficence), Lincoln states with absolute clarity his belief that a God’s guiding hand shall ensure that the people — all the people — have a say in their destinies: “[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
You and I are grown-ups, and we understand that, in a representative democracy, the fact is that people do not get a vote on every single issue facing the government. Instead, they vote for their representatives who are supposed to, well, represent them. It is not “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people” when our elected officials refer to us as “evil-mongers” or try to label ordinary Americans as card-carrying Nazis for opposing Congress’ will. Obama, the one Penguin claims was “shape . . . politically, philosophically, and personally” by Lincoln’s stirring words, is no better:
“We’ve got some work to do. I don’t mind, by the way, being responsible. I expect to be held responsible for these issues because I’m the president,” Obama said. “But I don’t want the folks that created the mess — I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess.
“I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking,” Obama said.
Of course, the above statement was just an off-the-teleprompter moment before a friendly crowd. Obama can be forgiven for failing to soar to rhetorical heights or even ordinary human decency. Let’s be fair to him and get back to the whole point of this article, which is Penguin’s easy assurance that Obama’s first (and, we hope, only) Inaugural Speech deserves to be bundled with Lincoln’s tight-composed, visionary rhetoric.
I’m going to play it straight here and ignore the speech’s policy wonkery (which drags the speech down) and instead look for the most elevated passages, passages that boast either beautiful prose or national vision, or both. That’s a little unfair to Lincoln, whose speeches were very tightly written, since this approach sheers off the laundry list of interest groups to which Obama had to pander during the speech. Nevertheless, it’s more fair to Obama, in that it lets us look without blinders at the best rhetoric our new President has to offer. I’ll let you decide if they belong in the same book as Lincoln’s speeches:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many — and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. [I include the whole paragraph, although only the first part deserves rhetorical note. The second part is just a laundry list of Democratic grievances.]
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. [The preceding sentence takes on a certain ironic charm in August 2009, doesn't it?] We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. (Applause.)
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
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. ["Khe Sahn"? I know. We already went over this sop to the anti-War Left back in January.]
[snip]Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. [This is an "almost" in the oratory category. There's some soaring rhetoric, but basically it's an attack against Obama's perpetual bugaboo -- the strawmen.]
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken — you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. [Ugly language, but strong sentiments -- all of which he immediately abandoned, although that's another story.]
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
That’s enough. The rest of the speech is a laundry-list. It’s dull, uninspired and has the vision only of someone who sees his own nation as an endless to-do list that must be accomplished to whip this national bad boy into shape.
So I’ll just ask you again: Did Penguin package Obama appropriately, or has he been elevated far above his natural oratorical station?
Cross-posted at Right Wing News