by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 21, 2009
A NATION REDISCOVERS THE VALUE OF WORDS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's been a long time since we've seen this kind of excitement over a presidential inauguration.
The burdens on our 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama, are heavy and the expectations are great. But many Americans seem to have confidence that he is up to the task. He enters the White House with more goodwill and support than a president has had in decades.
We think it might have something to do with Obama's greatest gift, his rhetorical skills. He has managed to bring back the art of speechmaking and the art of using words and ideas to inspire action.
Obama's detractors dismiss these skills as "just words" and say they are not important.
"'Just words' is how a president manages to operate, 'Just words' is how he engages in the spirit of progress for the country," Theodore Sorensen, the man who collaborated with President John F. Kennedy on many of his speeches, told The Boston Globe recently.
Obama himself gave an even better response to his detractors in a speech last year at the annual dinner of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "Just words?" he asked. "'I have a dream.' Just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.' Just words? 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Just words?"
Through his oratorical gifts, President Obama has managed to reconnect Americans to a older political tradition. Before the age of carefully crafted sound bites and the 24-hour news cycle, before the shoutfests on talk radio and cable television, before blogs and text messaging and Twitter, people connected with political issues through public rhetoric. Before we were buried under technology and speed, speeches were the jumping off point for a national dialogue.
Perhaps that's why so many people are excited about Mr. Obama. He reminded us of what it's like to have an adult political conversation, and what happens when our elected leaders speak to us as adults. A president can't lead by words alone, but the pages of our nation's history are filled with examples of how the right words at the right times have moved mountains.
And so it was on Tuesday in his Inaugural Address - a mixture of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kennedy, updated for new challenges and problems unimagined by FDR and JFK.
Within the first two minutes of his speech, President Obama gave a synopsis of what ails this nation. "These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met."
He wasted little time inspiring the nation to overcome the present crisis.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. ... We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
He anticipated what his critics would say about his agenda, and skillfully parried their criticisms.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
He made abundantly clear that the arrogant foreign policy of his predecessor has come to an end.
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
And he summoned every American to stand up and do what's needed for their nation.
"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."
These weren't "just words." They were a summons to Americans to participate in a new age of gravitas and intelligence in our public discourse; a call for a smarter, more mature discussion of the problems that face us.
Let us begin the journey.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.