Obama’s inaugurgal speech will draw on Lincoln, King

By Dennis Gruending

Barack ObamaI have been curious about where Barack Obama will find the antecedents and inspiration for his inaugural speech on January 20. American writer Kathleen Hall Jamieson is an expert on rhetoric, particularly that of presidents. Jamieson says that while modern speeches may contain some new content, they always draw upon a stock of earlier speeches and existing rhetorical forms. Northrop Frye, the late Canadian literary critic, made much the same point. Inaugural addresses exist as a genre. They are a new president’s opportunity to set a tone, to think big and to talk in terms of lofty vision.

Delivering an historic speech about what George Bush Sr. called the “vision thing” is not easy. Most inaugurals are forgotten almost as soon as they are delivered. Only a few survive the test of time and enter the nation’s literature, to be quoted in generations to come. John F. Kennedy’s speech in the 1960 inaugural is recalled as a classic. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said, “but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was America’s first television age president and like Obama, he was elegant and articulate – but Obama is unlikely to draw heavily upon Kennedy in the inaugural speech.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech in 1933 was another a classic. The Great Depression confronted him when he took office, much as Obama is beset by a raging economic crisis today. When Roosevelt delivered his speech on March 4, people were gripped by fear and anxiety. Roosevelt told them: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear it fear itself…” He promised decisive action to put people back to work and he launched the New Deal, a massive program of public works – what today we would call infrastructure. Expect some echoes of Roosevelt’s steely determination in what we are going to hear from Obama, but he won’t be a major source either.

It is clear that, among presidents, Obama has chosen Abraham Lincoln, a man from Illinois and the emancipator of slaves, as his touchstone. Obama and his family took the train on January 17 from Philadelphia to Washington with six stops along the way, just as Lincoln did nearly 150 years ago. Obama also decided to swear his oath on the same Bible that Lincoln used for his.

The power and cadence of Obama’s speech, however, will likely owe at least as much to Martin Luther King, someone never elected, but rather a pastor and prophet whose destiny was to speak poetic truth to those in power. Obama’s focus on Lincoln allows him to complete the great American narrative of race and justice that runs from Lincoln the emancipator, through King the prophet, to Obama in whom the prophecy is fulfilled in almost religious terms. Obama, a black man, has become president in what was an apartheid-like state, but only after Martin Luther King paid with his life for his prophecy to that state and its citizens. I am a fan of Roosevelt’s but somehow his New Deal, as important as it is, does not have the same narrative power as that of the progression from Lincoln to King to Obama.

Lincoln made several speeches that have become deeply embedded in the American psyche and the country’s narrative. He won the 1860 election and delivered his first inaugural on March 4, 1861 when the storm clouds of secession and civil war were gathering. He opposed slavery but for him the paramount issue was that of national unity. He agreed that the founding fathers had condoned slavery in existing states, but argued that a proper reading of the constitution forbade slavery in the new territories that were opening up. A number of southern states threatened to secede from the union over the issue but in his speech Lincoln insisted on majority rule and said that he would not allow secession. But he ended his speech on a conciliatory note. “I am loath close,” he said. “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Although slavery has long been banished, Obama has made it a priority to reach out to opponents, much as Lincoln did to his. Listen for that in his speech.

The Southern states did secede and the war was fought. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln made a short speech at the dedication of a cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where thousand of soldiers had been slaughtered in several days of intense fighting. Lincoln’s 266-word Gettysburg address is legendary in the United States and elsewhere. He used the consecration of a graveyard to rededicate the nation to its founding principles. “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Obama is not likely to talk too much about war, but he will echo Lincoln on freedom and democracy.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address occurred on March 4, 1865. The cruel war was still raging and Lincoln wondered aloud if the Almighty was punishing the nation for its offences. Wearily, but firmly, he promised to prosecute the war to its completion but even in its midst he offered a conciliatory gesture that he knew would be needed in the future. “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who will have borne the nation’s battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In the 150 years since the Civil War, that American promise has been badly, some would say hopelessly, tarnished. The beacon of equality, freedom and democracy lived on in the mind of Martin Luther King and countless others, and it was King’s stirring oratory that captured the dream. He spoke on August 23, 1963, appropriately from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during a peaceful civil rights rally. One hundred years after the Civil War, King said, “we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.” King spoke with a sense of urgency about what must happen. He used the familiar phrase about the American dream to rhyme off eight parallel constructions about his own dreams for the future, including this one: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Many of the abuses that King described have been overcome; others remain; and King was assassinated for holding the dream that he did. Obama is seen as tangible fulfillment of King’s promise of a better day. No matter how good a president he is, he is bound to disappoint these almost messianic expectations once he has to make hard decisions about taxes, wars and social justice. But as he places the finishing touches on his inaugural (and he will write it mostly on his own), Obama has a rich tradition of American oratory upon which to draw.

2 thoughts on “Obama’s inaugurgal speech will draw on Lincoln, King

  1. Thanks, Dennis, for this latest piece on Obama and public oratory which so obviously pulls together a lot of your interests in faith, public affairs and the art of speechmaking.



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