Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Setting the Tone

Setting the right tone
Barack Obama's inaugural address lent itself admirably to his governing style – eloquent but not stilted, pointed but polite

o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 21 January 2009 21.30 GMT

Many people have commented on the echoes of Abraham Lincoln in Barack Obama's inaugural address, but they have missed the point. As the benediction by civil rights veteran Reverend Joseph Lowery demonstrated, Obama's address also echoed the pulpit, and the black pulpit in particular.

This is not too surprising, since they share with Lincoln a common vocabulary of solemnity, the pervasive tradition of King James and the Book of Common Prayer, along with the folksy touch.

This is not aloofness – people expect solemn words for solemn occasions, which is doubtless why so many prefer the older versions to modern translations that read like committee reports. His speech was simple, comprehensible but matched the dignity of the occasion.

His diction was formal but not stilted or pompous, and the formality depended on the precise word order, which provided measure and cadence in an almost antiphonal style. Just listen to the stresses in those opening lines, which set the tone, and indeed the rhythm, for the rest of the speech:

"humbled by the task before us,
grateful for the trust you have bestowed,
mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors."

And of course there were the antiphonal contrasts: "The rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace" or "So it has been. So it must be."

Definitely not something to be mumbled by his rhetorically misunderestimated predecessor, there was more poetry in this speech than the somewhat vapid "Praise song" by Elizabeth Alexander, which pandered to the modern prejudice that poetry can dispense with disciplines of rhyme or scansion.

Since this was not the product of a committee, let alone focus groups, it lent itself admirably to Obama's own style. It is an authentic American tradition of oratory that can tend to bloviated orotundity on one end of the scale but gave the Gettysburg Address on the other. This was not up there with Gettysburg (which was not an immediate hit with contemporaries anyway) but definitely tending that way.

Obama's thanks and appreciation to George Bush the person were followed by a comprehensive but polite repudiation of his political legacy. In an atmosphere of bitter ad hominem attacks, he set an example.

In the political discourse of recent America, to be as studiously inclusive as Obama was, with invocations to Christians and Muslims (note the order), not to mention non-believers, was in its way to be very exclusive. His programme excludes anti-science creationists, elitists, dogmatic free marketers and bigots of all kinds.

His continual evocation of collective, common responsibilities is a rebuttal to and rebuke of Thatcherism – "There is no such thing as society" – while his vindication of the role of government (as if not vindicated by events) refutes both Ronald Reagan's ideological opposition to it, and Bill Clinton's pandering to neoliberals, without itself being dogmatically assertive. Indeed his call for effective government echoes Deng Xiaoping's indifference to the colour of cats as long as they catch mice.

If not quite in the King James mode, his evocation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers called up more recent, Depression-era folk memories. Most people will have found the words "Start all over again" popping up in their heads after "Pick yourself, dust yourself off," and some may even remember the full context:

"Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again."

It was a very apposite text for the sermon – sorry, speech – whose theme is indeed a repudiation of the poisonous ideologies that brought us to this pass and a call for "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord".

And one hopes that it is indeed true, with his 80% approval ratings, that "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

But only if you do not trawl the Mesozoic swamps of conservative websites, where the far-from-fossilised right is sharpening its claws and fangs ready to start all over again. And of course in Congress, where the lobbyists are already swarming like velociraptors to get their greedy maws on the taxpayers' money, Obama will need armour like a stegosaurus if he really intends to put truth in the rhetoric.

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