Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The 2nd Inaugural Belongs to History

A speech is not a man. It is not even a presidency. It is just a speech.

But listening to the 2nd Inaugural address again, and reading it, Mad Dog wonders how he failed to appreciate it the first time. 

Listening to the assembled pundits on The News Hour today, and listening to the reaction of various right wing mouthpieces, Mitch McConnell, various think tank wimps, and watching all of them miss the point,  the impression took hold: This was a remarkable speech in the way presidents can sometimes rise to transcendence by synthesizing and summarizing.

Mr. Obama use of  the customary rhetorical devices of repetition of key phrases with less success than, say, Martin Luther King--the "We the People" phrase was utilitarian, but the never ending journey was better. His echo of Martin Luther King's magisterial phrasing of "let freedom ring" from the mountains of New Hampshire to the Great fruited plains, Obama invokes the journey from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, all evocative vistas now.

But what was very adroit was the stringing together of significant names: Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. Even though I had to be told what Seneca Falls was--Frederick Douglass raised the flag of emancipation and abolition there--and Stonewall, the pub where gays were arrested in New York City, for being gay, and the cause of gay rights began.

But most of all, the selection process, by which Mr. Obama returned to the key issues of the campaign which elected him, not because he was trying to win votes but he was saying, this is more than an election slogan, this is an important value: That free markets can only thrive with regulation by government, that people who receive Medicare and Social Security are not takers but rightful beneficiaries, that government safety net programs are necessary to allow ordinary people to take risks to succeed and to benefit us all, that we ought to welcome the immigrants not as freeloaders who we scorn because we must inevitably support them but as strivers who will ultimately enrich us, that no economy or nation can succeed when a shrinking few can do very well but a growing many can barely make it (an echo of FDR there), that government and community effort have always been required to defeat our foes, from fascism to communism, that government programs must be criticized, and bad ones ended and good ones renewed, that we cannot be sold the false choice of caring for ourselves and future generations or caring for the generations that built this nation, that honoring our commitments to Medicare does not sap our strength but frees us, that absolutism is no substitute for principle.

His call on our generation, which is born for this moment,  reverberates with JFK's recognition of the passing of the torch from an older generation to  first president to be born in the 20th century. 

And with that he outlined challenges which remain: to clean up the environment, to clean up the corruption of our voting process, where shenanigans threatened the integrity of the very electoral process, and the veiled reference to the Supreme Court with phrases that said we cannot solve today's problems if we remain constricted by the past--as  Lincoln said the solutions of the past cannot help us past our stormy present--but Obama was subtly digging at the "orginalists" on the Court who claim we cannot move forward because we are stuck with the 18th century parchment which rules us.

And his deep desire to find common ground, which he has learned is not possible among the embittered and mean little men of the current Republican party, comes out as he says "The oath I have sworn before you today...was an oath to God and country, not party or faction," reminding everyone that Mitch McConnell and all those constricted, withered souls who sail with him, have sworn the same oath but they have cleaved to party and class, rather than fulfill the obligation of their oath to country.

It was a statement of first principles and a rejection of the small minded, the small of heart, the mean and nasty and frightened little men--McConnell, Cantor, Boehner the whole Republican Tea Party host--who oppose him, who block up the hall.

Had Mr. Obama asked me, I'd have thrown in the one seminal American mind he omitted--I'd have said, "Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don't stand in the doorway; don't block up the hall; your old road is rapidly agin'. Please get out a new one if you can't lend your hand, for the times, they are a changing."

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