Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Not quite the Messiah


Being an old pagan at heart, despite my rationalist pretensions, I couldn't resist a shiver of trepidation when Chief Justice Roberts failed to read the Presidential Oath correctly. The Romans would have considered this a very bad omen, and insisted that the whole ceremony begin again. What worried me even more, though, was Barack Obama's response. He hesitated slightly before repeating Roberts' garbled (and, strictly speaking, unconstitutional) formulation. Hardly the action of a decisive, self-confident leader, who would surely have had the presence of mind to come out with the right words whatever the idiot in the black robe had misspoken. Obama must know the words - he must have rehearsed them again and again and again, probably since he was at Harvard. "I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States." It's not difficult. Whereas "I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully" sounds like something Dubya might have said.

A Bush appointee, it is of course possible that the Chief Justice shares his patron's linguistic disabilities. Or perhaps he did it deliberately; as a senator, Barack Obama had cast his vote against Roberts' nomination. Either way, it was clearly the low point of the Inauguration - the high points being the chorus of boos that greeted the appearance of the outgoing president and the sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, looking even less jocund than usual. The official story is that he had an "accident" while clearing out his desk. Perhaps he was laying a booby-trap for his successor and it unexpectedly went off. Or perhaps he tried to shoot himself. The elder president Bush, by contrast, looked rather cheerful (if liable to fall over) as he wobbled his way down the staircase. Spare a thought for Papa Bush. It was John Adams - as viewers of the recent HBO series will have been reminded - who first had the rare distinction of living to see his son elected president. But Adams' fate was kinder than HW's: he died a few months later, and so was unaware what a comprehensive hash John Quincy Adams made of the job.

As for the big speech itself, I suspect most people will have been distinctly underwhelmed. He was supposed to have invoked the shades of Lincoln, Kennedy and Roosevelt in an oration that would write the first page in a new chapter of history; instead, Obama's most resonant phrase was stolen from Irving Berlin. And while America might well need to pick itself up, dust itself down, and start all over again, it's hard to imagine the new president actually thinks his most appropriate historical precedent is Fred Astaire. But bathos is invariably the price paid for inflated expectations. In recent days the BBC seem to have been playing Kennedy and FDR on a continuous loop, as though there were only two inaugurations speeches worth quoting (perhaps there are) and only two notable phrases ever coined. Certainly, there was nothing comparable here: the mistake Obama's people made, I suspect, was to make it seem not merely possible but expected that there would be.

According to the Times, a cult has grown up around Jon Favreau, the "fresh faced wunderkind" who wrote the speech. The 27 year old has "spent the last two months working for up to 16 hours a day on the speech in locations all over Washington...As the day approaches, he has found himself writing until 2 or 3am, fuelled by double espresso shots and Red Bull." Moreover, "a team of assistants" were on hand to "furnish him with material, from research on key moments of crisis in American history to the collected speeches of former presidents." I suspect that was the problem. It was derivative, full of echoes, not just of Kennedy and FDR but of Lincoln, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jefferson and the Bible - but such echoes merely made the clichés of language and sentiment more glaring. I suspect Favreau's first draft was probably much better.

This speech - stilted even in delivery - was a disappointment after the passion of Obama's victory speech, just as even that was a pale shadow of his earlier inspirational speech in Iowa. The metaphors were clumsy and contrived - "rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace", "our patchwork heritage". There were some predictable noises about unity and purpose, some barbed asides aimed at Bush, hints about the environment and talk of a "new age of responsibility". Perhaps the only truly brave part of the speech was the addition of the phrase "and non-believers" to a delineation of America's religious plurality. (Atheists are Americans too - yay!) The sentiments were fine (although, worryingly, the only discernable reference to Britain was as "the Enemy"), but overall it fell flat. Even Obama himself seemed bored by it. It wasn't a particularly bad speech, by normal standards: but Obama's standards are not normal, and for him it was a dud. Next time, Mr Favreau, don't try quite so hard.

Still, I particularly liked this passage, and hope he means it:


As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Most of the time, of course, a speech is just a speech: what matters is the work that comes after it. It is rare for a speech to transcend its time, lastingly enriching the language. Perhaps only Churchill managed to do it consistently - and he, of course, wrote his own speeches. But it was not unreasonable to hope that this Inaugural address would contain a phrase to sit alongside "we have nothing to fear but fear itself", or "ask not what your country can do for you", or "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" or "I have a dream". It was not to be. The world will little note, nor long remember, what Obama said today. Let's hope his deeds will be more resonant.

8 comments:

WeepingCross said...

And Churchill spent roughly forty years honing those wonderful rolling phrases he actually got the chance to use in the War ...

Against my will, I found myself rather moved by it all: the declaration that America's actions should embody the things it tells itself it believes in, and the effort to break down this nonsense that an American citizen must choose between two monolithic ideologies, one embedded in self-proclaimed Christianity, and the other its embittered mirrorimage. I have to say that the House Group was similarly, and unanimously, moved as well. Mr Obama has, apparently, the Church of England fullsquare in his support: quake, ye foemen, quake.

Anonymous said...

There are speeches and speeches, occasions and occasions. In this age of catchy one-liners this was a very down-to-the- earth speech clearly delining what was to be done and how and very appropriate to the world situation. It had a certain dryness instead of his usual flare which seems to have disappointed some but methinks that this is a speech that will grow with time, taking a clear stand on a number of important issues and setting an immediate course for the coming work and also making people aware of the seriousness of the times.

And is it not a sign of a good speaker to not deliver the expected?

sipelgas said...

Sorry, #2 was mine, not used to making comments ...

Edwin said...

I too was stuck by the 'enemy' reference - slagging the Brits always goes down well in the US - oh stretch out a hand of friendship to the despised limeys, Obama!

And I was also struck by the welcoming of infidels into the US sacred corral - perhaps a retrospective apology to the shade of Thomas Paine (an Englishman and an unbeliever) may be in order.

Vidal calls Obama the US's 'best demagogue since Huey Long or Martin Luther King' while supporting him, which is where I stand I suppose despite our great warning shade of Blair.

I think we should probably mutedly rejoice celebrate without being too downbeat, which difficult feat you bring off in this brilliant piece of required reading - it's all got to be better hasn't it? As Clinton said all those years ago, there is a place called hope. . .

therealalekid said...

"perhaps a retrospective apology to the shade of Thomas Paine (an Englishman and an unbeliever) may be in order."

Totally agree.

passer by said...

The best speech yesterday was GWBs in Texas, I am looking forward to the book.

Bams best speech was when he had to repudiate Rev. Wright and take on some off the prejudices of African Americans themselves.

As Mrs T said, "The facts of life are Conservative"Keeping safe, paying the bills are just that.

therealalekid said...

"Bams best speech was when he had to repudiate Rev. Wright and take on some off the prejudices of African Americans themselves."

If it was the speech i think you talking about I wasn't so keen on it personally. I was uncomfortable with him drawing equivalence between a public figure like Jeremiah Wright and his outlandish statements and his Grandmother who help raised him from his childhood and her personal views/remarks.

McDuff said...

I don't believe any of the phrases you wanted were delivered in Presidential Inaugural Addresses. Could be wrong, but at least most of them weren't. Good speeches - and this was a good speech that was entirely suited for the occasion - are a dime a dozen, but you can't just pull a transcendental, timeless bit of phraseology out of your ass every time you want to. Churchill has the benefit of history obscuring the speeches which were humdrum or even just ok.

In contrast to what "Passer By" said, Obama's best speech was when he defended the Reverend Wright (whose controversial sermons I took the time to listen to and which I found monumentally unobjectionable), not the comments where he distanced himself from the Reverend once he became perceived to be more of a liability among the liberal Donks. Of course, I believe that Passer By meant the Wright-defending speech, and that was the one the apparently oversensitive Realalekid got an attack of the vapours over, but didn't really listen to the content as much as a few soundbites. C'est la vie, I guess, when you're everyone's blank slate.

Oh, and on the "flub," as with so many other things which could be blown up out of all proportion by the prevalence of in-your-face media coverage, it seems to be not as big a deal as all that. It is, of course, very easy to say that "an accomplished speaker like Obama should have been able to..." yet the lie is rather put to that since an accomplished speaker exactly like Obama, in the moment, didn't. But recognising that such things are not worth lingering on, the Chief Justice and the President got through it then sorted it out later on. There are an almost infinite number of reasons to chastise Justice Roberts - and for that matter President Obama too - but this is not one of them.

I must admit, the whole post here confuses me a bit. You sound almost disappointed that Obama turned out, on a cold January day, to be nothing more than a mortal. But surely that's all it was reasonable to expect him to be? I'm not a huge fan of the man's policies (while recognising in a country with an electoral system as broken as the United States he's probably the best they could have done under the circumstances) but at least I know to keep my criticisms within the boundaries of what it's reasonable to expect a human being to do. No, he's not the Messiah. Nor is he a golden unicorn, a Griffin, or any other mythological creature. I fail to see why that's a problem.