Hendrik Hertzberg, himself formerly a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, critiques Obama’s inaugural address (text here) and concludes that it was…a mixed bag.

Some sections were turgid, Hertzberg suggests (perhaps a bit cattily):

My stylistic reservation has nothing to do with “narrative arcs” and the like; it’s about staleness of language. Lines like these—

The words [of the Presidential oath] 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.

—come dangerously close to “It was a dark and stormy night.” Also, while one might conceivably take an oath “amidst” clouds and storms, one cannot speak words “during” tides and waters. Not without gurgling, anyway.

But Hertzberg likes the approach to history he heard in the speech:

All that said, there are fine passages, and the speech makes many strong and subtle points. It improves with each rereading, as its political shrewdness and the generous liberal values that underlie it come through more clearly.

E.g.:

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled 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 Sanh.

The mentions of sweatshops, the lash of the whip, and Khe Sanh serve to broaden the national mythos. The struggles of labor (implicitly including organized labor) and the long history of slavery (not just its abolition) are brought fully into the official American story. The sacrifices of the soldiers sent to Vietnam are recognized and separated from the folly of the policies that sent them there—an important psychological step toward withdrawal from Iraq as well as a welcome generational marker.

And then, of course, there’s the question of Obama’s approach to the opposition:

E.J. Dionne wrote last week that “President Obama intends to use conservative values for progressive ends.” Sure enough, the speech was replete with grace notes like these:

Our journey. . . has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work

the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things

not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good

those values upon which our success depends—honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true.

a new era of responsibility

I sometimes forget—but Obama never does—that for all the brutal skirmishing, there is considerable overlap between the views of most American liberals and most American conservatives. The phrases above may “sound” conservative, but as a liberal I find them perfectly congenial, especially when served up alongside phrases like these:

choose our better history

all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness

bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions

roll back the spectre of a warming planet

Obama is unusually adept at deploying “conservative” aesthetics in the service of “liberal” goals. This is not a new phenomenon on the center-left. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of what Herbert Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic, prescribed in his hugely influential 1909 book “The Promise of American Life”: the use of “Hamiltonian means” to achieve “Jeffersonian ends.”

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece, worth reading in its entirety, and a reminder of how few good inaugural addresses there have been. Speaking of which, would you like to hear me recite Lincoln’s second inaugural? Because I can, you know.

Advertisement