Grading the Obama Speech
For the most hotly anticipated inaugural speech in decades, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Buckley says the President-elect would be wise to take a page from the two men whose shadows are cast over him: Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.
The new president is perhaps the best writer—along with the man to whom he is perhaps too-much-too-soon compared, Abraham Lincoln—to be elected. The Daily Beast's Christopher Buckley on the expectations and delivery of Obama's speech today.
Update, 1/20/09: Our new president wears his greatness lightly, but as I watched him walk through all those marbled corridors in the Capitol building, he looked grave, almost like a statue of himself. One can only wonder what—on earth—goes through the mind of a man as he prepares to take that oath of office.
Weirdest karmic moment: seeing Dick Cheney being wheeled out of the White House in a wheelchair. Wow.
His speech: excellent, and how clever of him not to quote Lincoln, but Washington. That was a brilliant line about how we will extend a hand to those who unclench their fists. I’d guess that the “money quote,” the one we’ll remember, will be, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Poem: perhaps not the high point, but a respectable job. The real poem was the Rev. Lowery’s brilliant closing benediction.
Most unscripted moment: the Chief Justice flubbing the 35-word oath of office.
Most touching moment: the Obamas seeing the Bushes to the ramp of the helicopter. Unprecedented, and a real grace note. What fine hands we seem to be in. God bless America. This is going to be tough to turn into satire, you know.
Original Post: If I were Jon Favreau (Mr. Obama’s 27-year-old wunderkind speech writer) right now, I would be under the bed in the fetal position, or at the nearest bar, draining my fourth Martini. I would be, in other words, scared. I feel your pain, Mr. Favreau. (Hmm, good phrase, that. Note to self: have copyrighted.)
I looked him up, and according to Wikipedia, he was born June 6 (D-Day, as it happens), 1981. This is not significant to you, but it is to me, in a small way, since that was right about the time I came to Washington to work as a speechwriter.
If Obama doesn’t quite face the challenge that Lincoln faced, it’s still a lulu.
Mr. Favreau’s abilities are heads and tails above mine, but he has only himself to blame if he’s under the bed or trying to drink himself unconscious. If he hadn’t been quite so good, things might have turned out differently. I suppose that’s arguable; but it’s absolutely true that if Mr. Obama weren’t such a great speech maker, he’d be watching the inaugural from his seat in the “Reserved for Senators” section.
I can’t imagine what pressure he’s feeling right about now—but then the man evinces such preternatural calm that it’s possible he’s doing a cross-word puzzle right now and wondering if he has time to hit the gym before hosting the dinner in honor of Sen. McCain. (BTW, how classy is that?)
Michiko Kakutani’s excellent front-page piece in The Times today (“From Books, New President Found Voice”), about what a profoundly literary man our new president is, made me go back and re-do the front-page headline the day after the election: WRITER ELECTED PRESIDENT.
Mr. Obama is perhaps the best writer—along with the man to whom he is perhaps too-much-too-soon compared, Abraham Lincoln—to be elected president. Well, okay, Jefferson was no slouch. At any rate: Obama came to the nation’s attention on the basis of a speech in 2004; made his personal fortune with two books; cemented his reputation as a thinker (and campaigner) with a speech on race. In less than 24 hours, he’ll address the nation from the ultimate pulpit. What will he say? Any guesses?
He’ll be speaking on the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday, and he’ll be facing the spot, across the Mall, America’s front yard, where Martin Luther King gave the second most stirring speech in U.S. history. (Gettysburg or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—take your pick for first place.)
King’s shadow has loomed over Obama in so many ways: by weird coincidence, he gave his convention acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of “I Have A Dream.”
Another of King’s speeches has been on my mind. On April 3, 1968, the day before King was murdered, he spoke in Memphis:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It’s impossible, even all these years later, to hear that “I may not get there with you” line without feeling a clutch in the throat. I wouldn’t presume to predict what Mr. Obama will say tomorrow, but for inspiration he could do worse than the tropes in King’s last speech. Obama has already reached the mountaintop. The trick now is getting the 300 million others of us up there with him. If the Obama narrative were a novel, its current title might be Great Expectations. A year from now, will it be titled This Side of Paradise or Beloved?
In his run-up speeches to this moment, Mr. Obama has been becomingly demure. If he doesn’t quite face the challenge that Lincoln faced, it’s still a lulu. He has striven to be realistic about just how steep the mountain is, but he doggedly and calmly exudes the audacity of hope upon which the premise of his potential greatness rests.
Well, it’s all by way of saying that I can’t think when I’ve been more eager to hear a speech.
Break a leg, Mr. Favreau. Break a leg, Mr. President.
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.