Paul Greenberg

Dear Critic,

It was wholly a pleasure to hear from you about our president's Second Inaugural address, which you found uplifting, eloquent, enthralling ... while I felt safe in asserting that, well, it wasn't Lincoln's. Surely that fact is beyond dispute.

I do thank you for writing; I learn most from my critics. Sometimes, like you, they pose a good question, as you did.

You noted that I quoted from the great inaugural addresses of the past -- Jefferson's and Lincoln's and FDR's -- in contrast to Barack Obama's. But what about more contemporary presidents, you asked. Can I think of any inaugural addresses in our own time that were any better than this president's a few weeks ago?

In a word, yes.

Consider an inaugural address delivered January 21, 1985, by another just re-elected president.

In his second inaugural, Ronald Reagan not only reached back to the past with pride, but forward to the future with hope:

"Four years ago, I spoke to you of a new beginning and we have accomplished that. But in another sense, our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we the people allow it to have.

"That system has never failed us, but, for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give. We yielded authority to the national government that properly belonged to states or to local governments or to the people themselves. We allowed taxes and inflation to rob us of our earnings and savings and watched the great industrial machine that had made us the most productive people on Earth slow down and the number of unemployed increase.

"By 1980, we knew it was time to renew our faith, to strive with all our strength toward the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.

"We believed then and now there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.

"And we were right to believe that. Tax rates have been reduced, inflation cut dramatically, and more people are employed than ever before in our history."

Here is the most prescient passage of Ronald Reagan's text that day:

"These will be years when Americans have restored their confidence and tradition of progress; when our values of faith, family, work and neighborhood were restated for a modern age; when our economy was finally freed from government's grip; when we made sincere efforts at meaningful arms reduction, rebuilding our defenses, our economy and developing new technologies, and helped preserve peace in a troubled world; when Americans courageously supported the struggle for liberty, self-government and free enterprise throughout the world, and turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom."

In words dreams begin, and the result of Ronald Reagan's were dreams fulfilled. Impossible dreams that somehow proved possible: the end of the Cold War, and the end of the Soviet Union and the nuclear arms race with it. A new birth of freedom in this country and in the world. And a long-running economic expansion that made the Reagan Years the beginning of one of the most prosperous periods in American history.

As the Carter Years and the Carter administration wound down, American decline was almost taken for granted. It was inevitable. There was nothing to be done about it. The spirit of the times came to be summed up in a single word: malaise. Ronald Reagan changed that attitude, and changed history.

How did his second inaugural address differ from the one we heard this past Inaugural Day?

In spirit mainly, and spirit can be all. There was a joy about Reagan's second inaugural -- a zest, a pride, a sense of adventure and delight that were absent in this president's.

Ronald Reagan's was the speech of a happy warrior. Would anybody think of Barack Obama as a happy warrior? His second inaugural address was full of calculation rather than inspiration -- a list of grievances to be collected on behalf of this group or that group. Ronald Reagan's was an expression of faith -- a faith not in this group or that but in all of us -- in America. His pride in this country, its people and Constitution and history, was unconcealed and unashamed. And contagious.

Barack Obama's wasn't the speech of a Ronald Reagan. Or that of a Franklin Roosevelt, whose jaunty spirit shone in even the bleakest of times ("... the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"). Surely no one would call Barack Obama's style jaunty, let alone supremely confident. In his second inaugural, there was no sense of triumph -- and triumphs yet to come. There was only a kind of plodding determination to even scores.

This president's tone was almost resigned, grimly determined rather than joyous. When he did appeal to American pride and American values -- "hard work and individual initiative" -- he seemed to do it almost grudgingly, as a kind of afterthought, a mandatory gesture. His mind and heart seemed elsewhere: on grievance after grievance and their collection.

It was the kind of speech that divides, not unites. Its principal connection to the American past seemed to be one of hurt, not pride -- less Ronald Reagan than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

As for Barack Obama's vision of the American future, it wasn't the Constitution's "more perfect Union" but just a less imperfect one. ("We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.") What ever happened to that "shining city on a hill" Ronald Reagan invoked and Americans have aspired to since the Pilgrims set sail for this New World? Where was the spirit -- the American spirit? No wonder so many of us still miss The Gipper.

A great president needs to be more than "transformative" -- the nation he leads should ask: What is he transforming us into?

In between the layers of boilerplate that made up the bulk of this president's second inaugural ("sustainable energy sources") there were indeed some phrases that caught the attention -- like a cinder in the eye. For example, his mention of "peace in our time," a reminder that Churchill's bust is out of the Oval Office and Neville Chamberlain's spirit (or lack of it) is in. It is not an improvement. It's more of a warning of disasters yet to come. Benghazi may have been only a foretaste.

They called Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator.

What will they call Barack Obama?

Forgive me, Dear Critic, for quoting a past president at such length in response to your question. But, well, you asked.

--Inky Wretch


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.