A Tale of Two Speeches
By Mary Lyon
Feels like it's still the best of times and the worst of times. If the night of President Obama's first major speech to a joint session of Congress proved anything, it confirmed that America chose the better of two directions last November. Nothing could underscore that more glaringly than the comparison of Obama's remarks to those that followed, by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, so reminiscent of a miserable period that thankfully just ended.
Speeches are symbolic. The words pack a punch, certainly, but the ideas behind them and the style in which they're delivered count hugely as well. The people presenting them make a difference, too. You need all three elements working in harmony - stirring language articulating transcendent ideas, offered by speakers who inspire confidence and optimism. So the night of this year's twist on a State of the Union speech was a stark study in contrasts.
At first, all I could think of once President Obama concluded his remarks his first speech to Congress was directed at the loyal opposition: "Beat THAT." Obama's was a "ballpark" speech. As in "hit one out of the..." It was straightforward, uplifting, and offered a sense of relief - that a cooler head and steadier hands are at the helm. My fellow Americans, we chose well - for a change.
And what a change indeed. We're in the worst fix ever, at least as far as I can think back, as a woman of five decades. The previous most-memorable lines from such a prominent public address involved a fallacious laundry list of so-called WMDs that were surely being amassed at that very moment to obliterate us, and how we should all be sorely afraid - and then, vindictive as hell. Obama said it during the campaign trail and he might as well have repeated it on this occasion - "not this time."
How refreshing is this after eight years of semi-coherence, arrogance, and an undercurrent of broadly embroidered manipulation and mendacity? This speech had a wealth of memorable lines. Exhorting America's youth not to drop out of school because "it's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country." An urgent insistence that health care reform "cannot wait, must not wait, and will not wait another year." There was Obama's candid admission that it's hard to swallow the idea of helping the banks right now - "I get it." Best of all was what our battered, humiliated, divided, disgraced nation needed most to hear: "we will rebuild, we will recover." These are statements we can cling to, like so many available lifeboats as the ship is sinking. I've heard many a speech with stirring lines before, but somehow I feel better after hearing these. Somehow, from Obama, I'm inclined to believe it.
Manna in the desert after eight years of desolation. This was a President who leveled with us, not in an imposing or distant or smug way from some lofty perch that would never allow him to understand how it is for those of us positioned far below. Eight years ago, someone crowed that the adults were back in charge. Eight years later, at last, the grown-ups finally got here and sent the miscreant juveniles back to their rooms. Better late than never. Amazingly, Obama remained magnanimous and inclusive to the not-so-loyal opposition, even joking with them about reaching a consensus in the midst of one unanimous applause line, while gently needling them about the mess that he inherited (from them). Hey, GOP, you're getting off easy. Be grateful that I'M not president.
I'm guessing the Obama speech, uplifting, encouraging, reassuring, and thoughtful, also served to make America grateful that Bobby Jindal is not president, either. Jindal, offering the Republican response, did not "beat THAT." Not even close. His speech illustrated glaringly how impoverished the whole conservative mindset is, in these trying times that call for much, much more. I couldn't help feeling that what Jindal was mainly after was to position himself as the Republican frontrunner for 2012. All that other stuff seemed beside the point.
Astoundingly, here's a guy who dared to point to the way Katrina was handled by the federal government as the reason why we should continue to downgrade government (well, of course, when you're dead set on assembling a "government" that's underfunded, staffed by boobs, and therefore guaranteed to fail)? This was the guy who wanted to make sure you knew that while Obama had one parent born in another land, he had two. This was the guy already anxious to reimpose the same tired tax-cuts-are-our-salvation and we-don't-need-no-stinking-regulations bunk that has already failed so miserably.
Times are nasty. Reality is harsh. People are hurting. Our country has been driven into a ditch by the weasels Governor Jindal evidently dreams of emulating. I feel a lot better knowing that his policy preferences are in the minority, now seated in ever-shrinking, sulking groups of Sore Losermen busily conspiring to impede any views but their own. I feel relieved knowing it's not the Republican mindset that's still got its cold, greedy, myopic death-grip around our throats. I feel encouraged after watching the audience reactions - from Obama voters and McCain supporters alike - that clearly resonated with the Obama assertions far more powerfully throughout his speech.
For Jindal on the other hand, not so much. He didn't close the deal. Because he can't. For his side, as most of us recognize by now, there is no deal. The lights are still on but the home's been foreclosed. And America knows it. Jindal's rhetoric did not soar - no help symbolically to lift us up above our troubles. His smile and demeanor seemed contrived, artificial, polished only for an empty sales pitch and nothing deeper. Even more shallow and wooden were the ideas he pushed, just as knee-jerk as in the speeches every year following the September 11th attacks, and by Jove he even hauled out the old reliable GOP fall-back reference of 9/11 itself. What's a Republican speech without a 9/11 nudge, after all? Jindal was playing the hits alright - from the same stale kind of playlist as that radio station you once liked listening to as a kid, that you've long since outgrown.
The differences couldn't have been more clear on this particular night. We chose well last November. The tale of these two speeches, from these two different sides and two different worldviews spoke for themselves. If the response we saw from Jindal represents the kind of leadership we'll get from the Republicans in the years ahead, then I feel even more confident for our country's future as we work our way back to safety and sanity together. Because it means they and their unworkable ideas will be left sulking on the sidelines for years to come.