Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And and But

Malcolm, since Cicero at the High School in Harcourt Street, is a student of oratory. He has, on occasions, been no mean practioner himself (not for nothing was he described as the "Norman Hunter" of his Borough Council chamber).

So he looks forward to President Obama's inaugural, today. Pause for intake of breath: yes, by then it will be "President Obama".

Very few speeches come with such much baggage of context and anticipation. It is also true that Obama has rarely let us down in the past.

What can we expect?

Well, almost any speech in such circumstances has to take one of two main lines:
  • the "and" speech, emphasising continuity and tradition, how the future will develop organically from the past;
  • the "but" speech", pressing for change and a new future better than what has gone before.
Obama has to cover both tracks:
  • he is the forty-fourth president of a continuing tradition;
  • he has sold himself on the twin rails of "change we can believe in" and "hope".
The last time we were in such dire need of a new radiant future was the 1933 inauguration. It's worth checking back: FDR's speech of 1933 is noted for two passages:
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
and, in the opening paragraph:
... first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Of the two, it is the second that has gone into the dictionaries of quotations, and which echoes sonorously in the mind. That went largely unnoticed at the time: it was the first, with its Biblical connexions, that attracted the attention at the time.

Tomorrow's newspapers will celebrate one ringing phrase or sentence. It will be uplifting and energising. It may not be the quotation that will enter the history books as the epitome and epi-centre of the Obama era.

When he was musing on this posting, Malcolm discovered a debate on the New York Times website on the topic. It is worth the study. He shamelessly stole the image above (by Ozier Muhammad) therefrom. Apologies and thanks.
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