Stirring words: Obama should emulate FDR, not JFK

Inaugurals should be true to the times, and we're closer to 1933 than 1961

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The Gazette, Sunday, January 18, 2009

Barack Obama was born in 1961, the year John F. Kennedy delivered the last great inaugural address by a president of the United States. Justly celebrated for its inspirational eloquence, JFK's "Ask Not" inaugural made no mention, however, of the plight of black Americans.

Millions of African Americans could not even vote, but this Tuesday after his swearing-in, a black American son of a Kenyan student will speak to America and the world as the 44th president of the United States. Later that day, with his daughters and wife Michelle, who is descended from slaves, Obama will move into the White House, which was largely built by slaves more than two centuries ago.

Such is the trajectory of Obama's narrative, and of his country, which as he has said, "while not perfect, is perfectible."

Other than JFK's glaring omission on civil rights - his epiphany came only later, in 1963, the remainder of his inaugural stands the test of time. As author Thurston Clarke concludes in Ask Not, his wonderful book on Kennedy's inaugural address: "Many will read these sentences and mourn a time when a speech could move a nation, and launch an era of idealism, optimism and joy."

Kennedy and his chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen set a standard of excellence that is unlikely to be surpassed. It was precisely Kennedy's power as a rhetorical leader that enabled him to become a transformational president. As Obama himself said last week: "Sorensen and Kennedy together did an extraordinary job."

Admirable as it is, JFK's "Ask Not" speech might not be the right frame of reference. Obama should also be reading up on Franklin Roosevelt's "Fear Itself." FDR's famous first inaugural was delivered at the height of the Great Depression. Jonathan Alter, in his superb book, the Defining Moment, captures the sense of the economic emergency, bordering on panic and desperation, that Roosevelt inherited from Herbert Hoover.

Looking ahead to his inaugural, Obama told George Stephanopolous last week: "I want to try to capture, as best I can, the moment we are in now ... here is the moment we are in, here is the crossroads we are at."

Well, the moment we are in isn't at all like 1961, but a lot more like 1933.

Then, as now, the issues were liquidity in the economy and solvency in financial institutions. But the overriding issue was confidence, and FDR radiated confidence. "First of all," he began, "let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He went on: "This nation is asking for action, and action now." This was a man who pulled himself out of a wheelchair, and gripped the podium to stay on his feet.

There's another standard of excellence, to which Obama has himself referred, that of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural, "Malice Towards None."

The moment was March 1865, and the U.S. Civil War was coming to its momentous conclusion. And Lincoln himself was looking past it, though he would not live to see it. "With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Those Illinois lawyers, they sure have a way with words. Lincoln had a way with brevity. His second inaugural comes in around 700 words, four long paragraphs, one single subject. Eloquence is a benchmark of excellence, but economy is equally to be prized.

But it isn't just the words that define a great public occasion, it's also the context. Lincoln was speaking at the culmination of a great domestic conflict that would redefine his nation, ultimately allowing another legislator from Springfield to succeed him nearly a century and a half later.

Roosevelt was speaking at the height of the greatest economic emergency in U.S. history, from which it would emerge only with the Second World War.

Kennedy was speaking at a great turning point of the 20th century, at the height of the Cold War between the NATO alliance and the Soviet Union, in which the only thing more frightening than "fear itself" was the fear of nuclear war.

Obama will be speaking at what might prove to be a defining moment of the 21st century, a moment when the state of the U.S. economy has eclipsed all other issues, including the state of American power in the world.

But there is, among the famous lines of Kennedy's inaugural, a concluding paragraph that isn't often quoted, but equally commends itself to the new president: "Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

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