Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's words need to be read as well as heard

Many pundits have judged the new president’s inaugural speech to be good but not great.

That depends when and how it is encountered. Taken on its own, free of the immense historical significance of today’s Obama inauguration, I believe it stands with the greatest inaugural speeches.

As we heard it today, the speech had to compete with the palpable aura of the day.

Today Obama spoke to us as we exhaled in relief and cheered in great national pride. His words could not match the feelings of the moment.

What was the speech up against? Just how vested were we all in the portent of this event?

Perhaps 200 of us gathered at the Portland Community College campus center to watch the distant events projected on a big screen. When Justice Roberts and Barack Obama took their places for the swearing in, we saw everyone on the dais in front of the Capitol rise.

And so, a continent away, did we.

We were there.

Later, back in our classroom, more than one student pronounced the speech just OK. So-so.

I thought it was better but I also felt it fell short. There was no “Ask not what your country can do for you … ” call to sacrifice. No “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” reassurance.

Certainly those sentiments embedded in Obama’s words, but the speech was far from indelible.

It was only later, after I printed out the transcript and read it closely that I saw it for its greatness.

Here was crafted prose firmly in the lineage of great oratory. The reference to “gathering clouds and raging storms,” was Churchillian. Many heard Roosevelt in the cautionary preamble. The offer to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” rang of Kennedy as did Obama’s alliterative proclamation that duty is “the price and promise of citizenship.”

Years from now, when students of history read the speech free of the wet-eyed, elated multitude on the Capital Mall, when the relief over the departure of a miserable administration is no longer palpable, when we no longer surprise ourselves at being blind to race, this speech, rich with historical reference, will be an oratorical monument to our times and to our character.

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