A review of Obama’s inaugural address

27 January, 2009

An interesting examination of Barak Obama’s inaugural speech, by Jonathan Raban.

Just a couple of things to mention: Roosevelt’s Depression-era first inauguration speech contained a condemnation of bankers and financiers, with a strong allusion to Jesus driving the corrupt money changers out of the temple. Raban says this was an unconscionable antisemitism, which FDR must have overlooked or else agreed with. It is a shame that he should make this association, which is not forthcoming from the biblical story, in which the money changers were indeed Jewish, but so was everyone else in the temple, including Jesus himself.

Raban looks askance at the use of “forbearers” in the sentence “we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers”. However, while it is true that “forbear”, when it doesn’t mean ancestor, generally means endure, withstand or put up with, it should also be usuable in its most literal sense, “to carry before”. While it is most likely that “forbearers” is simply an error, it also has a perfectly acceptable alternative meaning as a reference to those who previously maintained the ideals of the United States.

The sentence “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America” contains a musical reference I haven’t seen noted elsewhere: the song Pick Yourself Up, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, as first heard in the Fred Astaire film Swing Time (1936). Was this a conscious reference to the spirit of the Depression, a sly pointer to a love of Broadway tunes or Astaire films, or mere coincidence?

Obama gives an historical quote from “the father of our nation”, who listeners naturally assumed to be George Washington, but who was actually Thomas Paine. But would anyone refer to Paine as “the father of our nation”? Rather than a subtle piece of historical knowledge, this attribution may actually be a simple mistake.

Finally, Raban says the most unusual thing about this speech is that, for all its deference to archaic forms and niceties, it strongly condemns the inauguree’s predecessor. I think history will say that the real innovation is that the speech was addressed not just to America, but to the citizens of the world. In a way, this globalised address out-Bushes Bush, and his pretentions to be the teacher of the world. At the same time, it matches Obama’s revolutionary use of new communication methods to build popular support. I think this may be the first time the inaugural ceremony has been broadcast live around the world (following a similar precedent for the presidential, and, indeed, vice presidential debates). It may not be the last, and if it is not, Obama’s reign may see the dawn of what the neoconservatives have been calling for, “the new American century”. (Which will, of course, be nothing at all like “the thousand year Reich”!)

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