Not That Kind of Inaugural Speech

02/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What a disappointment.

What a disappointment, that is, if your measuring stick for presidential speeches -- for presidential inaugural addresses, in particular -- is how easily they can be boiled down to a single memorable phrase.

If you're keeping count of the lofty sentence constructions. ("Ask not...")

If you're waiting for the Kennedyesque couplets, no matter how forced. ("Let us never fail to walk a mile in another man's shoes, but let us never walk in shoes that manage to fail.")

It wasn't that kind of speech.

It wasn't even -- and maybe this was the biggest surprise -- a speech that sent the millions watching on the National Mall and elsewhere into frenzies. Or even into frequent bursts of applause.

By my tally, there weren't more than a half-dozen full-out, sustained applause moments in Barack Obama's entire speech. Add a few smatterings here and there -- tentative claps, lost beneath the new president's next words -- and that was pretty much it for audible audience reaction.

This, from a man of already-legendary ability to bring a crowd to its feet time and time again. To call forth waves of joyful noise.

It wasn't that kind of speech either.

So the question you have to ask yourself is: Did he forget? Did he lose his touch?

Or was there something else going on here?

I choose Door No. 3.

Barack Obama knows how to get wild, rapturous feedback from crowds. He knows how to set it up -- how to kick up the rhetoric a notch, and the volume a notch, and the cadence a notch, how to lean into his delivery just a little bit harder until his listeners can no longer contain themselves and --

He knows how to get the big response.

He also knows how not to.

That's my assumption, anyway. This man who leaves so little to chance when it comes to presenting himself -- if he'd wanted "soaring," or "celebratory," he'd have written "soaring." He'd have written "celebratory."

Instead, he went for "serious." For "sober." Even for "somber."

Not that his imagery wasn't evocative; there were enough gathering clouds and icy rivers to keep tomorrow's English majors busy for years. When he talked of how we'll "harness the sun and the winds and the soil" -- it certainly out-poetry-ed pedestrian alternatives like "alternative energy sources," let alone "switchgrass and other potential biofuels."

And he came up big on the few occasions when he most needed to: We'll meet our challenges, however difficult they now appear. We'll defeat the terrorists. We're once again ready to lead the world.

For the rest, though -- well, go back and read the thing yourself. Read it all the way through; it won't take long. Here's what you'll discover: It's written in paragraphs, not in punch lines. And some of the most important stuff is tucked into a paragraph's opening sentences, or middle sentences.

"(I)n the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

"We will restore science to its rightful place."

"(W)e reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

That's not what you do when you're trying to exclaim. That's what you do when you're trying to explain.

There was so much to explain -- and so much more to come. So many difficult decisions ahead. So many tough choices. So much damage to undo. This first speech seemed designed to set the stage for all that. Not to make history, but to meet history:

* Times are hard. They may get harder.
* We've been through worse, and we've made it through. We'll make it through again if we all do our part.
* The world needs America, and vice versa.
* It's time for the grownups.

Not much applause in there -- if what you're looking for is applause.

But not bad for 19 minutes. Not bad at all.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at