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Obama Gives a Great Speech

I know what it is like to have the news of the day overwhelm a fine speech by the president -- a speech you were hoping, as a speechwriter, might make a little splash just because of its quality.

Yesterday the news was all Judd Gregg, who had suddenly -- one imagines in a midnight sweat -- realized that he would have to spend years defending economic policies he had spent his whole political life opposing. But the same day, President Obama delivered remarks in the Capitol rotunda on the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth that deserve attention.

The speech was brief and graceful -- almost Lincolnian in its simple, forceful language. President Obama expressed a "special gratitude to this singular figure who in so many ways made my own story possible -- and who in so many ways made America's story possible." This recognition of Obama's personal debt to Lincoln was itself a small but compelling historical milestone.

Obama made good use of his setting, explaining how the construction of the Capitol dome had been continued by Lincoln during the Civil War, even though the materials might have been used for bullets and cannons. "The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions." This is vivid and beautiful historical storytelling.

Obama concluded by praising Lincoln's generosity even in the aftermath of conflict -- the kind of grace that ends the normal human cycle of reprisal for reprisal for reprisal. And he called on that spirit in current controversies, without sounding (to my ear) partisan or self-serving. "And so even as we meet here today, at a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln's day, but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time -- and debating them fiercely -- let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future. That is the most fitting tribute we can pay -- and the most lasting monument we can build -- to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln."

I criticized Obama's inaugural address for lacking fresh language and a sense of the historical moment. Obama's return to the Capitol yesterday had both.

By Michael Gerson  | February 13, 2009; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  Gerson  | Tags:  Michael Gerson  
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Comments

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

I thought the Lincoln banquet speech in Springfield that night was decent as well, also making use of setting by speaking him as Springfield lawyer, as a man and not the marble giant. He offered a political definition of government through focus on the word "union." It was a lot of his same themes, but he presented it in a fresh way.

Posted by: caramel2 | February 13, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Mr. Gerson. You're right, this was overlooked by WaPo.com on its homepage until you highlighted it.

Is it sacrilege to compare it to the Gettysburg Address? Both invite us to share in the humility of our debt to the dead and call for us to dedicate ourselves as one people in tribute. The simple, solemn language without a spare word echoes Lincoln. Righteously honoring his grace toward the conquered elevates the speech to heaven.

Posted by: jhbyer | February 14, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate and agree with Mr. Gerson's comments. Unfortunately the link to Obama's speech does not work, and I am unable to locate the text of that speech anywhere. Can anyone help?

Posted by: Munir1 | February 15, 2009 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Here's text: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/RemarksbythePresidentattheLincolnBicentennialCelebration/ ; If you want the video and can't see it in the Youtube link, you can find it on cspan.org.

I agree with Mr. Gerson about the inauguration speech. I thought the substance was good but the construction was cringe-worthy. Personally, I would suggest that Mr. Obama get a new head speechwriter. A 27 year old frat boy just doesn't cut it for me. I think Mr. Obama is a great speaker and a good writer in his own right, but with a better speechwriter, he'd be able to elevate the quality and construction of his speeches and the energy of his performance even more.

Posted by: caramel2 | February 16, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm amazed that this speech didn't get more press. Immediately after watching it, I sat down and wrote to everyone I could think of who'd appreciate it to make sure they wouldn't miss it. When this speech is discovered, it will become one of those that high school students "interpret" at debate meets and graduate students of political science and literature cite in their dissertations. It's a thing of beauty.

Posted by: martimr1 | February 16, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

For once, Mr. Gerson, I am grateful for your remarks.

Posted by: turningfool | February 17, 2009 2:46 AM | Report abuse

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