The Inaugural Address
A PROMISE DELIVERED UPON
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
January 20, 2009
BRADENTON, Fla., Jan. 20, 2009 -- The words that reached out to me from the Inaugural Address of President Barack Obama were when he spoke of what Americans can achieve when "imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage." Imagination and courage are the most powerful qualities of the American character, because it is we as a people who have progressively imagined annd created this great nation, and we who have courageously defended and extended its ideals.
As the President spoke of economic hardship and global challenges that lie ahead, he was simultaneously inspiring yet another generation of Americans to the exercise of its greatest virtue: a respect for fairness, freedom and the rule of law. In its brevity, the speech was extraordinary, and in its eloquence it was sufficient. In its greater dimensions, however, it was a signal call to renewal of friendly relationships with other nations and to a rebirth of personal freedom in the United States.
Not many presidential speeches have had to meet such high expectations. John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address was one of the very best in history, and Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural, with its memorable phrase, "with mailice to none..." was the best. Yet in casting its shadow down through the ages, none has been so influential, heartfelt and eloquent as that of President George Washington's heroic Farewell Address, in which he warned us against the power of political parties to divide and stalemate, was not an inaugural at all but came a few months before the end of his second term in 1796.
President Obama evoked the sacrifice of Washington with his imagery of blood upon the snows along the Delaware River, when the Continental Army faced almost certain defeat yet summoned imagination to the common purpose of our survival and inestimable courage to the necessity of the historic victory General Washington's brave army achieved.
President Obama's Inaugural Address reached none of those oratorical heights, yet it was broadcast to billions around the globe, and so its basic restraint and measured rejection of his predecessor's destructive policies, and its wide embrace of all people, -especially in its distinctive statement directly to those of Muslim faith throughout the world - the speech was a rhetorical moment unmatched in its meanings, nuance and clarity.
When he spoke not of "Christians and Jews," for instance, as is the traditional formulation used for the past half century, but of "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus," he startled all of the above. He spoke not of allies and enemies, perhaps the most familiar rhetoric of Inaugural Addresses, but "old friends" and "adversaries," and an inclusive world not dominated by friendships alone but by the centrality of other nations' focus on peace.
Neither Israel nor the phrase Middle East were mentioned at all - and neither was oil; instead, without mentioning China, India and Asia by name, he warned us that the world demands more of the dwindling vital resources we have consumed so freely and near-exclusively for more than five decades. Another president might have emphasized our right to our lion's share.
Mr. Obama sternly married our historic march to social justice to the painful struggles of Concord and the fruitless victory of the 77-day battle of Khe Sanh that began 41 years ago tomorrow, yet mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan just once in the context of leaving one and fighting for the other. His reference to the "bitter swill" of Civil War was utterly poignant.
Absent was the traditional paean to the heroism of American troops now serving abroad in wartime, who cannot help but have felt excluded when Khe Sanh was mentioned but Anbar and Baghdad were not. The intent was very likely to alert Americans and acknowledge to the world the profound injustice the Iraqi people have suffered, even if the sacrifice of American lives to gain that nation's freedom from Saddam Hussein was a valiant one.
The larger, far-reaching poiint was that we never belonged there, and thus the personal heroism of our troops in Iraq - which were saluted, nonetheless, in his inclusive remarks about our Armed Forces - must await another day of praise. His rhetoric did not stoop to the baser instincts of American patriotism but to the higher one of our peaceful intentions from this day onwards. That is an extremely meaningful statement, yet its pace and delivery were restrained as if to make a widely accepted truth a plainly stated one for the first time.
Unexpectedly, and appropriately given our times, he spoke to the world's stock markets, not just our own, when he reaffirmed our wealth and power as preeminent on the globe, yet acknowledged the present "winter of our hardship," perhaps the frankest statement of "our uncertain destiny" - a unique estimate - ever made in an Inaugural Address.
Like all such speeches, it was one for the ages. Yet it earned its place there not with its oratorical majesty but with the unique identity of its speaker as the first African-American president, a young and vital American whose prospects of reaching our highest office were widely derided just three years ago, and whose ideals have inspired the political energies of America's young far more than even did the youthful, greater eloquence of President John F. Kennedy.
In short, as the President promised during his long campaign, his Inaugural Address brought to America the blessing of hope, and the advent of historic change. The future can never diminish the grandeur and joy that greeted the arrival of those great players upon the world's stage.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter. He has read all the Inaugural Addresses aloud.