The [Wednesday] Papers
As I wrote yesterday, the speech Barack Obama gave yesterday was the least of it.
The images of an African American couple entering the White House, of an African American man taking the oath of office, of military personnel saluting an African American man, the departing helicopter of George W. Bush, and even the coolest inaugural parade I've ever seen - okay, the only one I've seen, but still, it was pretty damn cool - those were the things that Inauguration Day was made of. And the crowd filling the Washington Mall, of course.
The speech was the least of it, even though that's what pundits seem to be focusing on. And by least of it, I don't mean that as a criticism of Obama, though I didn't much like the speech. I mean it in relative terms as well as within the context that, unlike many others, I didn't have particular expectations for it. And again, I mean that not as a criticism of Obama; to the contrary, I mean it in a "give the guy a break" kind of way. What more is there to say? Must every Obama speech be a world-shaker?
Obama can give a great speech, but like a classic rock band revered by its fans that can show up and take a dump on the stage and be cheered to the high heavens, many of his speeches are ordinary. And for one final time, that's not a criticism of Obama but a criticism of the pundits (and overzealous fans) who insist on seeing (and hearing) things that aren't there - or aren't particularly insightful or lyrical.
One trick often used when Obama gives a less than thrilling speech is to praise him for purposely delivering prose instead of poetry. I heard this at times during the campaign (and after his Grant Park acceptance speech) and repeatedly yesterday by the TV twits - that Obama purposely tamped down his soaring delivery. Right. ("Hey guys," I imagine Obama saying, "let's not be too inspirational with this one. Some of this stuff is way too good. Tamp it down, okay?")
Or I read an editorial like the one in the Sun-Times today that praised Obama's speech because "he did not sugarcoat what confronts this nation" and delivered "a somber message" and try to imagine if the editorial would have criticized the man if he gave a speech that was directly the opposite in tone and substance.
We know the truth. If Obama had delivered a speech overdosing on sugar with nary a somber tone, the Sun-Times would have produced an editorial saying that the nation's problems await, but today was a day for celebration and spiritual uplift. Time enough to be somber tomorrow.
Does anyone remember the speech? I don't. And I don't care. I remember the Rosa Parks Bus leading the inauguration parade (and the NASA moon rover bringing up the rear).
At least there isn't consensus in pundit land.
John Kass, for example, shocked me by describing the speech as "amazing" and "beautiful." Well, he was there so I'm sure he was just having a contact Hopium high.
Even the appraisal of Obama press agent Eric Zorn didn't match Kass's; Zorn focused on listening for that one line that would be repeated endlessly and entered into the record books, as if waiting for the Super Bowl commercial that would produce a national catchphrase and upon hearing it, shouting "Hallelujah! Just like 'Tastes great, less filling'!"
In the end, Zorn writes that the speech deserves to be named in a memorable way, somehow, though he couldn't seize any particular passage himself and worked himself into a "Yes!" frenzy over something as pedestrian as Obama's proclamation that America is a friend to everyone and ready to lead again.
The headline over Lynn Sweet's piece today is "Obama Speech Sober By Design." I'm sure Obama aides - not ones to play the expectations game, ya know - will tell us when an Obama speech is designed for greatness.
Sweet opens by writing "President Obama made a clean break from the Bush years of 'false choices' in his inaugural address on Tuesday, deliberately sober as he called for a 'new era of responsibility'."
Ugh. Those were the parts I hated because they are patently untrue, in part because the same policy choices exist today that existed yesterday, and to the extent that they are choices presented to us in false frames because of politics, that hasn't gone away and the Obama campaign was just as guilty in propagating those false choices; and in part because Bill Clinton, among others, made the same declarations repeatedly in key speeches during his administration.
Richard Roeper seemed to like the speech for its locker room qualities.
In "Speech Wasn't Epic - But Right For The Times," because, you know, these aren't epic times, Roeper writes that "At times President Obama sounded like a football coach giving a half-time pep talk - telling the team that yes, we're down, but we WILL prevail."
USA! USA! USA!
(Roeper also excuses the lack of an epic line to the notion that "President Obama knows this is not the time for bumper-sticker catchphrases." See, Obama is already so much wiser than FDR, Lincoln and Kennedy! I'm sure in meetings with his top aides Obama said, "No snappy phrases! Now is not the time!")
The Tribune editorial page comes closest to getting it right. "History may decide differently, but at first blush there was no phrase in this speech that will be timeless . . . But in tone and substance, Obama delivered what the country needed to hear from its new president."
It would have been hard not to. Not a whole lot needed saying. And there's nothing wrong with that.
For now, please also see:
* The Other Inaugural Balls. A Beachwood exclusive!
* The Facebook Inauguration. As told by my Facebook feed.
* Fantasy Fix.
And feel free to send in your own comments, observations, anecdotes, ruminations, etc. Just use the tip line below or e-mail me directly and confirm for me if what you send is intended for publication. You must include a real name unless you have a compelling reason - like the mayor's revoking your liquor license - not to.
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Posted on January 21, 2009
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