January 22, 2013
I was fourteen when I attended a family wedding. The morning after, I snuck into the reception area and took a sip of the champagne from the previous night’s revelry. It was warm and flat. It almost ruined my taste for the bubbly for the rest of my life.
And that’s how I felt about President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address. The Washington Post trumpeted the hortatory line We Must Act as if it was holy writ. Well, they had to write something in that pompous headline.
I remember Lyndon B. Johnson’s three-worder addressing a joint session of Congress after JFK was assassinated: “Let us contin-ya.” OK. What did we expect him to say? “I’m going to abandon all of John Kennedy’s policies”?
President Obama’s First Inaugural Address was witnessed by 1.8 million people on the National Mall in 2009. It was doubtless an historic occasion. But what did he say then? We struggle to recall a single memorable line. I looked this one up:
Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
Is this what Chris Matthews considers Lincolnesque? Try this for Lincolnesque:
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
This was Lincoln’s State of the Union Message to Congress of December 1, 1862, now just 150 years past. Lincoln did not deliver this address in person; a clerk in Congress probably droned on.
But the words of President Lincoln have life, power, and purpose a century and a half later. Lincoln did not graduate from Columbia or Harvard Law School. Maybe that’s why he was such a powerful orator and rhetorician.
Also, Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader of Shakespeare. He knew long passages from the Bard by heart. We can hear echoes of Shakespeare’s mastery of language in many of Lincoln’s writings.
Yesterday was also the federal holiday dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
His famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech certainly inspired millions of Obama voters in 2008 and 2012. But that speech appealed to Americans of all races and political opinions when it was delivered. It reached out from “the red hills of Georgia” the mountaintops of New York, California and the Rockies. It was a generous, embracing speech, joining Americans together in a common affirmation of our founding ideals.
We are told over and over again that President Obama’s every act is historic. Well, yes.
We probably never had a president chew gum at his Inaugural Parade before (although I won’t vouch for Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson’s not chewing tobacco at his.)
Still, it’s hard to do something historic without saying something memorable. At Normandy in 2009, President Obama “hovered over the nations like a sort of god,” enthused Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. Okay, Mr. Thomas, so what did this sort of god say there? Even his most bedazzled admirers cannot tell you.
I remember Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech at Normandy as if it were yesterday. He pointed to the grizzled veterans seated before him and praised them for liberating a continent, for “leaving the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Presidents are judged by their words. We carve them in stone. We expect a president to offer us something better, finer, loftier than the humdrum of day-to-day utterance. This Inaugural Address sounded like a campaign potboiler, a harangue to gin up the base. There was not a word in it to appeal to me.
Mitt Romney was rightly criticized for referring to the “47-percenters”—those Americans he claimed were receiving or had received some form of payment from the federal government. It is hard to imagine how you could ever unite the country when you dismiss nearly one-half of it.
But yesterday’s Inaugural Address was just as narrowly partisan, just as dismissive. President Obama was saying: We won, you 48-percenters, so stand by for another round of liberal hope and change that will leave you gasping for air. We must act; you will be acted upon.
May I offer a suggestion to President Obama with all respect? Read Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. Read it daily. Millions of us revere the Bible as the Word of God, but even if you don’t believe that, the King James Version of the Bible gives us a style and a resonance that has never been equaled. In it, you might even read about what pride goeth before.