As I was listening intently to Obama’s Inaugural Address, I realized that I was actually LISTENING. I wasn’t just casually tuning in to the occasion, as I have done in the past. Instead, I was actively focusing on the content of the words. I felt that President Obama wanted to communicate his personal vision for the United States of America, and I truly believed that the words, the speaker and the intentions were united.
I’ve always disliked political rhetoric – and distrusted those who wanted to be politicians. The gap between words and subsequent actions always seems too great, and thus, all of that speechifying seems rather pointless. I know quite well that the slogans and emotionally manipulative language are usually a calculated “message” written by someone else -- and ultimately, so meaningless.
In the last years of Bush’s presidency, I went out of my way to not listen to him. Not only did I feel that there was a yawning gap between the ideals (as expressed in the speech) and the real (what actually happened), but I also distrusted (and despised) his entire rhetorical style.
About a week before the Inauguration, Radio 4 broadcast “Bremner on Bush: A Final Farewell” – a program which analyzed Bush’s rhetorical style over the course of his presidency. Much attention was given to his folksy, foot-in-the-mouth ways – and several of the commentators concluded that this humanized Bush and allowed people to identify with him. As a fellow Texan, the folksy shtick drove me crazy. I always felt it was terribly false and insincere. He may have sounded like a hayseed, but he was the furthest thing from it. Texans who have attended Phillips Academy and Yale and Harvard Universities just don’t talk that way. He has always been the scion of a cultured and well-connected East Coast family, and portraying himself as a man of the soil just didn’t wash with me.
Google Bushisms and you will have hours of reading material. If nothing else, Bush was certainly peerless in his inept usage of the English language. In the Bremner program, one of the commentators suggested that Bush only mangled his message – or got his words all wrong – when he was bored or disinterested in what he was saying. Apparently, he was eloquent (ie, “interested”) in the country’s defense of itself, and linguistically awkward (ie, “bored”) when it came to everything else. However, if you look at the legacy of material he left us, this “theory” can easily be debunked. Bush tripped over his words no matter which topic he was tackling.
Even when he was beating the drum for the “War on Terror,” he was subject to troubling (and telling) gaffes – for instance, this classic example: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004
Truer words were never spoken, but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t intend to send that particular message. Actually, my opinion on Bush was starting to slightly soften until I read last night (“Bush’s Final F.U.”, Rolling Stone, 1/8/09) about all of the “midnight regulations” he just managed to pass. Huge harm will be done to the environment and individual health and safety, but the energy and farming conglomerates will get to save some time and money.
There is a well-known saying in Texas: “You gotta dance with the one who brung ya.” You’ve got to hand it to him: Bush certainly always did that. Big business interests helped get him elected, and he was loyal to them to the end. As for the “little people” and the common folk, I doubt that many of them are feeling better off after 8 years of Bush’s residency in the White House.
Obama pointed out, in his Inaugural Address, that "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” Over and over again, Obama’s inauguration emphasized the importance of unity - of a place for everyone at the table. At first, I wondered at his controversial decision to include the evangelical minister Rick Warren, who delivered the Invocation for the ceremony. But after hearing Mr. Warren, who also emphasized the importance of unity and listening to differing opinions with “civility,” I realized what a truly harmonizing gesture this was for Obama to make. Evangelical Christians are a significant voice in the United States, and you can hardly claim to represent everyone without an acknowledgment of that fact. Joseph Lowery, the Reverend and Civil Rights leader who delivered the Benediction, put a tartly humorous spin on the theme of unity: we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. I liked the inclusion of these words because they acknowledged the racial problems of the past and present, but did so in a way that didn’t make it into a binary (black vs. white) problem. It is a marvelous thing that Obama’s very person harmonizes those contradictions.
On Sunday night I was killing some time in Borders and I came across an Elizabeth Berg novel titled We Are All Welcome Here. I’ve never read Berg’s work, but it has been recommended to me . . . and there was something about the title that called out to me. Coincidentally (or not), the novel is set in Tupelo, Mississippi during 1964 – against a backdrop of peace marches and voter registration efforts. The protagonist of the novel is a stubborn and often uncooperative teenager and in many ways it is a “coming of age” novel. In one of the key scenes, her mother - a white woman who has been paralyzed by polio – tries to get her daughter to recognize that a wheelchair is less confining than the frightening restrictions that the African-American characters are subject to. Through love and cooperation and the pooling of financial resources, the lives of these characters (black and white) are transformed.
No matter what else Obama manages to accomplish, his very presence is an embodiment of American ideals: that anyone can get ahead; that we are all equal by law; that we are all welcome at the table. I fervently hope that his foreign and domestic policies will live up to his words – and that there will no longer be a gap between ideals and expedience, the interests of some as opposed to the interests of all.