Reflections on the Inaugural Address

Published January 21, 2009

Nation Review Online

I watched today’s speech from the Capitol lawn, with a million or so shivering fellow citizens. I’ve been there for the last four inaugurals and so have seen men of both parties sworn in, and men of both parties shown the door. I would highly recommend the experience, whatever you think of the latest glutton for punishment taking the oath. It’s a great civic moment.

This was, understandably, a very partisan crowd in which I was badly out of place. The loudest boos, to my surprise, were not for Bush and Cheney, who got plenty, but for Joe Lieberman when he was shown on the huge television screens–more than one voice could be heard shouting “traitor” around where I was standing, so my wife and I broke into applause for Joe. Most of the people around us were just happy and excited, though, and it was lovely to see so many Americans waving the flag with a smile.

I have to say, the level of excitement and energy was certainly higher before the speech than after it. The speech, no doubt crafted more for the television audience than those present of course, was I thought pretty poorly received by the crowd. People were a bit confused by it: eager for lines they could cheer for or chant. Not one of the clearly intended applause lines got any real applause. There were even a couple of times when Obama stopped speaking to wait for an audience reaction and had to just keep going. It was much too dour and down for this excited crowd, and I frankly also found it a surprisingly flatly written and uninspired speech from a politician known for doing far better (indeed, a president probably elected on the power of his speeches above all.)

It also seemed to me that the shots at Bush were unseemly and out of place in such a speech, and rather surprising given the cooperative tone that has characterized both parties to the transition.

The most problematic parts of the speech, for me, had to do with the theme that always bothers me at such occasions: the dismissal of political differences as insignificant and petty products of irresponsibility, rather than of serious and meaningful disagreements about how our country should govern itself. What possible sense could be made of this passage in the speech?

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. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

Is everything that preceded the coming of Obama in our politics childish and petty? Every president calls for replacing partisanship with responsibility–Obama’s call on this front can be found almost verbatim in Bush’s 2000 campaign speeches. But maybe the reason it never works is that partisanship very often is responsible, and our disagreements are not childish things but serious substantive debates about important subjects, given form by some profound differences in worldview.

I did, however, very much appreciate the implicit traditionalism of the speech: the attempt to place the moment in historical context, the references to ancestors, founders, and duty to future generations at the beginning and the end. In parts, of course, they made the basic conceit of the speech, that we are in a moment of immense challenge comparable to 1776 or 1933, seem pretty silly. We simply are not. But they were also very much in order, and elevated the speech by linking this very significant moment to the larger American story. It was great to hear Tom Paine’s Crisis quoted–a stirring work of patriotic poetry, even for all of its (and its author’s) radical excesses. Obama even reinforced a great patriotic myth, that Washington had The Crisis (or some versions say Common Sense, which is even more unlikely) read to the troops by their commanders; an image I have always loved, though it has never been corroborated and is very implausible–perhaps Rick Brookhiser could correct me on that.

The speech was not a great work of rhetoric. It’s hard to imagine anyone will remember any line from it in a few weeks, let alone a generation from now. But most inaugurals are like this, and what it tried to do was frankly pretty encouraging.

Tomorrow, no doubt, Obama will sign some papers putting the United States firmly behind international abortion efforts again, and will begin the work of enacting a massively wasteful spending bill, and our politics will begin again to take up the great arguments that have long given it shape: about the proper relationship of the state and the citizen, about America’s place in the world, about the regard and protection owed to every human life, about how we might best reconcile economic prosperity and cultural vitality, national security and moral authority, freedom and virtue. These are divisive questions of enormous consequence, and they are neither petty nor childish. They are the substance of the political life of a healthy and thriving democracy, and Barack Obama, whether he likes it or not, has just thrown himself into the middle of them all. God bless America.

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