On inspiration

Of Obama’s non-reductive rhetoric, Gene Koo writes,

  Whatever the accolades for the speech that Obama delivered at his inauguration, it seems it won’t generate a singular sound bite as in JFK’s “Ask not…” or FDR’s “Fear itself” (Many of the major papers picked themes, rather than pluck quotes, although a few took to “hope over fear”). Pundits have hailed Obama as a gifted orator and skilled speechwriter, but generally overlook one aspect of his speaking that distinguishes it from his peers’: its complex structure resists distillation down to a single quotable phrase.

David Weinberger agrees, sort of, about Obama’s Inaugural speech yesterday. His summary:

  …there was nothing I would take out. And there was also, therefore, little I would excerpt in pursuit of a soundbyte.

I thought “Gee, that speech was full of one-liners”… we gather because we have chosen hope over fear…we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please…The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense…you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you…the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve…know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy…we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist…we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds…we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect…there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task…

Seems to me Obama is the master of both dialectic and rhetoric, wringing the irony out of conflicting sympathies, speaking in veracities that transcend differences and move listeners to new sympathies and fresh actions. So even when one can’t recall one-liners there are phrases that stand out in paragraphs that are models of dialectical and rhetorical perfection. For example,

  As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

In that one the phrase was “whisper though the ages.”

As with many — perhaps most — of us, I come from a family with a rich history of military service. My father fought in World War II. (In fact he had already served and re-enlisted at age 36 — so strong was his sense of a need to serve.) My sister and only sibling is a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy. Three young male relatives served in Iraq. Yet I marched, spoke and protested against the Vietnam war, and war itself. I still think the will to war is a vast flaw in human character. Yet I could not be more moved and proud of the selfless will to risk and sacrifice that characterizes military service, the fealty of soldiers to “meaning in something greater than themselves” and “this spirit that must inhabit us all.”

Even if Obama is pointedly vague, one knows there is Truth in what he says there. There is transcendence.

I am in awe of the fact that this country has elected this man, and yet I feel less led by him than inspired to constructive action. For once we have a political leader who isn’t closing doors for the sake of ideology or factionalism. This is a good and amazing time.

On the other head, The Daily Show take. This too.

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5 Responses to On inspiration

  1. James Robertson says:

    Hmm. I think there’s a lot of Zelig in Obama, actually, He is what you want him to be, and – at the same time – nothing at all. If you read his speeches, instead of listening to them you figure this out: he’s a marketing droid. Lots of words, absolutely no substance.

    The ironic thing is, if he worked in a large corporation, you and David Weinberger would dislike him intensely.

  2. I still don’t know about Obama. He is our President, and of course deserves our respect and support. But…

    I’m old enough to remember the Carter years, and I keep seeing that in BHO. I remember how jazzed we all were that Jimmy from the sticks could get to the White House and represent the little guy. We all know how that ended.

    I’m hoping for something better this time around.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    James, I don’t think so. The proof will be in the pudding, which one day old so far. We’ll see.

    Trudy, you’re right to spot similarities. But, different times, different men.

    I see far more in common between Obama and Reagan. Both were compelling speakers, movers of crowds. The kind of guys who could speak to the country over the heads of the media. There are differences there too. There is a vagueness about the public Obama, and a warm conventionality to the private man. It was the other way around with Reagan.

    Anyway, we’ll see.

  4. Robert Barr says:

    A lot has been made over Obama’s speech and I personally could care less if there is a sound bite or one-liner to be had from it. Frankly, I am tired of talk, and much prefer action.

    This country is starving for leadership, not rhetoric. Hope, not just in a tag line, but in deeds, will be what we judge this man on. Speeches and sound bites are lost in the sands of time, what we remember is a job well done.

  5. I think circumstances may shortly test Obama as none have since Roosevelt or Lincoln. It is my sense that Obama has the goods to rise to the occasion; it’s just a feeling. Carter was dead on in his analyses, which is not surprising, given that he had a rigorous scientific and technical training — something sorely lacking in American leadership, especially when compared to those of China, or Japan. Clinton was brilliant, but flawed, as the cliche goes; but maybe again circumstances weren’t right for greatness: the ease allowed us by North Sea, Prudhoe Bay, and Cantarell oil meant crisis was deferred. But Obama: he has the habit of saying just what’s needed when it’s needed. It’s a kind of intelligence that’s hard to put finger on. It’s easy to be loquacious; it’s so hard to do what is ethically needed in the moment that it is needed. I’m hopeful, ever hopeful …

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