WASHINGTON -- Reviewing inaugural speeches is a tricky business. Immediate impressions can be spot on. Of President John Kennedy's address, John Steinbeck commented, "Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the republic." Other judgments have been, well, hasty. The New York Herald called President Lincoln's second inaugural "a little speech of 'glittering generalities' used only to fill in the program."
Given President Barack Obama's background, his inaugural address would have been a memorable event even if every word had been a Flag Day platitude. Unfortunately, too many of his words were platitudes.
To be sure, Obama has a presence and confidence that completely filled America's main rhetorical stage -- extraordinary for a man who just six years ago was giving floor speeches in the Illinois Legislature. His arguments were sophisticated and politically ambitious. But the speech itself was -- amazingly, inexplicably -- uneven in its quality.
There were high points. "Our security," Obama said, "emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." That sentence has a spare elevation -- a natural rhythm when read aloud. The speech contained hints of John Kennedy in its assertion that "the nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." And Obama made effective but unobtrusive use of religious references, speaking of "still waters" and setting aside "childish things."
But the first literary goal of an inaugural address is to express familiar American ideals without resorting to distracting cliches. And Obama generally failed this test. There were too many "rising tides" and "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" and "nagging fears" and "dark chapters" and "watchful eyes" and "dying campfires" and "icy currents." Wages had to be "decent," and markets "spin out of control." It is simply mysterious how such tired language could sound appropriate to the ear of Obama the writer. Some phrases were just strange. Recriminations have "strangled" our politics, as in some "CSI" episode. We have "tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation." Yuck, in so many ways.
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