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.
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