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.