Is there anyone who has not yet weighed in on "the speech"? Unquestionably, it had substance, including a litany of the domestic and international challenges that we face. But did it soar, did it meet the high expectations that we all had for what many thought might become "the speech of all time"? Clearly, not. The bar had been set too high, particularly by Obama himself. His earlier speeches, and particularly his coming-out speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, engendered the hope for a ringing address, one for the ages. But as it turned out, there was no particular part of the speech, not even a phrase, that will live in history. Nothing he said will equal, or even come close to, the emotional impact of the opening line of his Iowa caucus victory speech: "They said this day would never come." That, my friends, is a line for history.
Overall, it was a fine speech, an appropriate one, and one that received mostly accolades from across the political spectrum. Yet there were critics, even among his supporters. Paul Krugman, one of his most enthusiastic champions, weighed in with what could be called at best faint praise: "...there wasn't anything glaringly wrong..."
Adlai Stevenson: Most analyses of Obama's speeches have focused on comparisons with presidential predecessors, particularly Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But the speaker with whom I think he is closest, both in style and substance, is Adlai Stevenson. In 1952, I was a 19-year-old, too young to vote under the then law, but nonetheless a campaigner for Adlai Stevenson in his losing battle against Dwight Eisenhower. Re-reading some of Stevenson's speeches today, they still evoke thrills, even a half-century later. His 1952 Democratic nomination acceptance speech. "...Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions..." evoked the language and message of Obama's inaugural address.
By the way, before he was a presidential candidate, Stevenson served as Illinois governor (at a time before they routinely served in prison). His wit and quickness are illustrated in an appearance he made on a television quiz program. He was asked to give a ten-letter answer to the question, "What is a synonym for security"? After a short pause, he responded, "For a man, employment; for a woman, engagement." Yes, I know, politically incorrect, but this was almost 60 years ago, and damn, it was quite an answer.
A small quibble with Obama's speech. The third paragraph in the speech begins "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath..." In actuality, Obama is the forty-third American to have taken the oath. Because Grover Cleveland served nonconsecutive terms, he is usually double counted when compiling the number of presidents in our history.
Depression-era song, Obama-era suggestion: As a fan of film and theater, I was amused by the following advice he offered (without attribution) in his speech to those suffering in this economic crisis:
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America."
Some of us old-timers recognize that these words were appropriated from the song "Pick Yourself Up", written by Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Jerome Kern (music), and sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the 1936 film, Swing Time. The lyrics of the song offered a lift for those suffering in the depths of the Depression. An excerpt:
"Nothing's impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again