WASHINGTON -- Along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., off Independence Avenue near 7th Street, there once stood a building known as the Yellow House. According to Jesse Holland's "Black Men Built the Capitol," it appeared from the outside like other dwellings. In the basement, with iron bars on the windows and rings in the floor for chains, and in a yard enclosed by a 12-foot wall, enslaved human beings were kept and sold.
One of them was Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and imprisoned at the Yellow House. He later wrote, "Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled."
In a few days, President Barack Obama's voice will mingle with those ghostly sounds, and be added to others. Marian Anderson singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," though the Daughters of the American Revolution had mocked that hymn's premise. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where a small plaque now marks a holy place of American rhetoric.
If Obama and his talented speechwriter, Jon Favreau, cannot find poetry in this place, they will never find it.
No doubt they will. But there are enemies of poetry and ambition in every speechwriting process. The political advisers who chant, "It's the economy, stupid." The focus group disciples who explain that the dial groups don't like the words "slavery" or "injustice"; they prefer words such as "buttercup" and "marshmallow." The communication consultants who use "rhetorical" as a pejorative because formality doesn't play well "around the kitchen table." Especially in producing an inaugural address, all of them must be ignored. It is appropriate to mention current events, but the State of the Union allows specificity soon enough. An inaugural presents different tests for a new president: Can he stop talking like a candidate, and speak for the country and its purposes? Can he place his barely started chapter in the context of the American story?