According to my lights this post is of no significance. All the hoopla surrounding Obama’s inauguration irritated me. All the reading of the tea leaves of what he would say, as if the words were more important than the deeds. All the pomp and circumstance – just like a British royal do.
I was slightly dreading the speech, because I thought that, like a melody is developed in a symphony rather than just repeated, oratory descends into bathos if the same tricks are tried too oftten. If every speech is eloquent in the same way as the last the magician is risking showing us how he does his tricks.
I’d also seen a you tube of Obama on the campaign whipping up the audience at the end of a speech like a bored rock star doing his schtik. After Iowa, the race speech, the nomination speech I was dreading an inaugural speech in the same register.
I note that the commentariat has decided it wasn’t a great speech. Well it was for me, precisely because it took the rhetoric down a notch. It had no ‘grand theme’ or zinger – which seems just fine to me – other than ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’ and Lincoln’s appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ – single zinger inaugurals seem stupid to me. Kennedy’s ‘ask not’ always seemed stupid to me but in an ultimately harmless way because of its meaninglessness and silliness. Reagans ‘government is the problem’ was stupid too, but actively so – in a way that mattered, as we are now seeing. There are too many things to do, and they’re too complex for a single zinger. They are in these post-ideological times anyway.
So Obama changed the register, and made his speech like his books. Low key, resolute, perspicatious, requiring the auditor to pay attention and consider the phrases carefully, for if one did one found one insight after another. An insightful president, rather than just a clever one. What a lovely thing. Who knows how it will all work out. Acts matter more, but I couldn’t be more thrilled with Obama’s speech. And it’s ‘low keyness’ and its refusal to pander to what the audience expects shows that Obama wants to immitate the spirit of Lincoln, not just borrow his words.