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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ignore the ludicrous lickspittles

Almost all inaugural addresses are forgotten within days. Other than perhaps Jefferson's first, both of Lincoln's, FDR's first and JFK's address, I don't think anyone remembers anything about any of the others. And Obama's speech yesterday is also destined for the dustbin of history. Only ludicrous lickspittles like Chris Matthews could mention Lincoln's and Obama's Second Inaugurals in the same sentence or Andrea Mitchell who compared his rhetoric to Martin Luther King's. Lincoln's address was an almost tortured explanation of how a just God could have allowed the suffering that had gone on during the war as the scourge that America had earned for the sin of slavery. He then called for the nation to come together in mercy to bind up the nation's wounds. The moral struggle that Lincoln expressed in that magnificent speech dwarfs the partisan calls from Obama's speech to pretend that there are no hard choices that our nation's politicians will need to make. We can have it all.

Obama might be arrogant enough to continually embrace the Lincoln comparison and to insert lines from Lincoln's speeches, as Mona Charen observes, but the effect just highlights the rhetorical flabbiness of Obama's speech.
Bounding from bromide to platitude, Obama alighted on his true theme — to excoriate his opponents and to deny that choices must be made between providing lavish welfare-state benefits and ensuring the prosperity of future generations. Deploying well-worn campaign themes, he slashed away at straw men: “We do not believe that, in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.” And, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” Or, “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

In the midst of the worst crisis the United States ever faced, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers already dead, thousands more wounded, and the outcome uncertain, Lincoln found it within himself to be charitable and humble. Of the contending sides in the Civil War, he said: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Though he could have been excused for a certain moral superiority — he was fighting the slave power, after all — Lincoln instead proclaimed “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln did not strut. He was too wise. Obama’s attempt to lasso Lincoln’s legacy for his narrow partisan ends reveals that he doesn’t even understand Lincoln’s greatness, far less partake of it.
When I teach students about Lincoln's Second Inaugural, I often start off by asking them what they think a modern politician would say on the occasion of an inaugural that took place in the waning days of such a terrible war during which that president had been mocked on all sides for his leadership during the war. The students usually respond with some version of a gloating in-your-face speech. It was Lincoln's humility and reach for a higher moral lesson to be drawn from that conflict that makes that speech so very great.

President Obama's Second Inaugural was no such effort.

Obama's address promised everything to everyone without making any hard choices between all the spending to do all the things that he promised and the costs of such spending. That follows his entire pattern from his first term of ignoring such hard choices. And as long as American voters continue to believe that we can get something for nothing, that should be enough.

In his claims of how much we need an expansive government, Obama set up one of his favorite straw men that a different view would try to defeat fascism or Communism with muskets and militias or build highways or train teachers with a single person. Now Obama is telling us that we should move beyond that hoary respect for founding principles in order to embrace "collective action." Jonah Goldberg notes that contrast in the speech and how that represents Obama's entire view of what government can do for us.
This is a rhetorical constant of Obama’s presidency. The choice is always between the atomized individual or the loving embrace of federal government in Washington. Either Julia’s all alone, or the government has got her back. Any acknowledgment that civil society, families, the free market, etc. are collective enterprises is always omitted from the equation. Either you’re the sort of reactionary fool who champions individual freedoms — indistinguishable from the sort of idiot who’d fight the Wehrmacht with muskets — or you understand that now is the time for collective action. The problem is that devotion to our individual freedoms isn’t merely a “constant of our character” (and would that that were still as true as it once was) it’s also a bedrock principle of our constitutional order. That principle is not like a musket or a whale oil lantern or an 8-track tape. And comparing it to one is a horrible category error.
Of course, when one of your main advisers thinks that America's political system is not worthy of Obama's presidency, why should we be surprised at the President's reinterpretation of the structure and purpose of our government? Dang that whole antique checks and balances foundation!

2 comments:

Rick Caird said...

It strikes me that this was just another campaign speech. It was certainly not a "governing" speech.

Pat Patterson said...

And many of these rhetorical failures have already been consigned to let the states do it.